A new report by the United Nations warns that the fast-growing bottled water industry may hinder progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal of providing safe water for all.
Behind the bottled water industry, there are a number of issues related to environmental sustainability, water management, and social justice.
The industry relies on a finite resource, groundwater, which is rapidly depleting in some parts of the world due to factors such as over-extraction and climate-fueled droughts.
The extraction of water for bottled water can add extra pressure to an already depleting water source, and conflicts can arise with communities worried about potential adverse impacts of bottled water companies’ extraction.
Moreover, the industry generates a massive amount of plastic waste, with approximately 600 billion plastic bottles and containers produced each year, most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills or the ocean. This plastic waste can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and poses a serious threat to marine life.
A fast-growing industry
The report is based on an analysis of literature and data from 109 countries and reveals that the bottled water sector has experienced 73% growth from 2010 to 2020, becoming a significant economic sector in just five decades.
Sales are expected to almost double by 2030, from US$ 270 billion to $500 billion. The report concludes that the unrestricted expansion of the bottled water industry does not align with the objective of universal access to safe drinking water and may slow global progress in this regard.
Moreover, the report suggests that providing safe water to the approximately 2 billion people without it would require an annual investment of less than half the US$ 270 billion currently spent every year on bottled water, which highlights the global social injustice where many people lack access to reliable water services while others enjoy water luxury.
The rapid growth of the bottled water industry is contributing to the depletion of groundwater, which is the primary source of bottled water.
Over-extraction and droughts caused by climate change are already depleting groundwater in some regions, and the agriculture industry, which uses water for irrigation, is the main cause of groundwater depletion.
Tap water perceptions
Although the water volumes used by the bottled water industry are small compared to those used by agriculture, the extraction of groundwater by the industry can add to the pressure on already-depleted water sources.
Furthermore, conflicts often arise between bottled water companies and communities concerned about the potential adverse impacts of groundwater extraction. Companies like Nestlé Waters North America, now BlueTriton Brands, have been criticized for extracting water from California during a prolonged drought.
In 2020, Nestlé Waters extracted 3 million liters of water per day from Florida Springs, while Danone extracted up to 10 million liters a day from Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps.
The report also reveals that in the Global North, bottled water is often perceived as a luxury product, whereas in the Global South, sales are driven by the lack of reliable public water supplies and infrastructure limitations caused by rapid urbanization.
Bottled water consumption in mid- and low-income countries is linked to poor tap water quality and often unreliable public water supply systems, caused by corruption and chronic underinvestment in piped water infrastructure.
The bottled water industry is skilled at marketing bottled water as a safer alternative to tap water by highlighting public water system failures, which erodes public trust in tap water.
Restoring public trust in tap water is likely to require significant marketing and advocacy efforts, says Zeineb Bouhlel, a researcher and lead author of the report.
Not necessarily safe
UNU-INWEH researcher Dr. Bouhlel emphasizes that the quality of bottled water can be influenced by various factors such as its source, treatment processes, storage conditions, and packaging materials.
These factors can potentially affect the water’s inorganic, organic, and microbiological properties. The report highlights that the mineral composition of bottled water can vary greatly between different brands, countries, and even within the same batch.
The report also presents evidence of contamination in hundreds of bottled water brands across over 40 countries in all regions of the world. Dr. Bouhlel argues that this evidence contradicts the common belief that bottled water is a completely safe source of drinking water.
A wave of plastic pollution
Plastic pollution from water bottles is a significant environmental issue. Bottled water consumption has been increasing globally, leading to a corresponding increase in plastic waste. Most plastic water bottles are made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is not biodegradable and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
When plastic water bottles are not disposed of properly, they can end up in waterways and oceans, harming marine life and ecosystems. Plastic waste can also leach harmful chemicals into the soil and water, posing a threat to human health.
The bottled water industry produced an estimated 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, resulting in approximately 25 million tons of plastic waste, most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills.
This amount of waste is so massive that it could fill a line of 40-ton trucks stretching from New York to Bangkok every year, as per the report.
Approximately 85% of plastic water bottles end up as waste, and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose.
These bottles also end up in the ocean, contributing to a large accumulation of plastic waste that poses a severe threat to marine life.
A recent study found that the world’s oceans contain a “plastic smog” of about 171 trillion plastic particles that weigh around 2.3 million tons if collected.
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