• Drinking bottled water is not a sin, right?

    Posted by Elissa

    7 June, 2011

    This morning, I turned on the tap and cleaned my teeth. So what, right? Even here in Australia, the land of droughts and flooding rains, where we know better than most how important water really is, we still take it for granted that when we turn on the tap, clean and drinkable water will pour out.

    Now, I know that's not the case for people in many parts of the world. There are more than one billion people on Planet Earth who do not have clean and drinkable water on call in their kitchens and bathrooms like I do. But just like I never really think about the water I clean my teeth with every day, I don't really think about the water situation that a great chunk of the world population deals with every day.

    Am I alone? I don't think so. Is it ok?

    That is quite another question.

    Take a swig of this
    What really got me thinking about it was an interview I heard on my local radio station a couple of months ago with the Go Tap movement. "Seriously?" I thought. But then some of the stats caught my attention.
    • Each year, Australians spend more than half a billion dollars on bottled water.
    • Australia produced 582.9 million litres of bottled water in 2009-10.
    • Australia's annual use of bottled water generates more than 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions-the same amount that 13,000 cars generate in a year. And only 36 per cent of the plastic drink bottles we use are recycled, so about two-thirds of that plastic ends up in landfill.

    So I looked into it a bit more. The ABC's The Gruen Transfer ran a story on the phenomenal marketing success of the bottled water industry in convincing people to pay $2.50 or more for something we can get virtually for free. One observation by advertising "guru" Russel Howcroft stayed with me: "Ultimately it comes down to two things-it's convenient and it's cool."

    In 2007, US magazine Fast Company made some more interesting points about bottled water in the article 'Message in a Bottle': "We've come to pay good money-two or three or four times the cost of gasoline-for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes."

    What does that really mean?

    It means that Western society has reached the level of affluence where we're willing to pay for something that we can get for free, even when more than a billion people-one in six-in this world has no dependable, safe drinking water.

    Hydration or hyperbole?
    When we buy a bottle of water, we're buying convenience and, according to the research, the cool factor. How many people do you see walking around with a Home Brand bottle of water? Not many. We're all carrying one of those funky shaped bottles with the pretty label and a pop-top lid. The ones bottled water companies have so carefully designed, market tested and re-designed especially to catch our attention.

    A The Sydney Morning Herald article in 2008, "Bottled water: the new social poison?", noted that young women are the targets of the bottled water industry, which positions their products as "essential fashion accessories or the key to a healthier lifestyle". As analyst Audrey Riddell says,

    "Young women aren't buying it just for rehydration but to send a signal that they can afford to pay for something that is many more times expensive than tap-water. They are showing off their affluence and sophistication."

    "Not me," I thought. "I buy it for the taste."

    But I admit, it's highly subjective. And even though I find Aquafina refreshing and think it tastes crisp and clean, while every other brand tastes flat and stale, I'd probably fail a blind taste test between waters at equal temperatures and presented in identical glasses. Most people do.

    But forget about that. Let's talk about the environmental footprint that each water bottler leaves behind when bringing us the pure, clean and healthy alternative to our tap. It's significant. In the US, Coke and Pepsi bottle their branded water at dozens of plants across the country to save on shipping costs-an eco-friendly idea. But then they place "the local water through an energy-intensive reverse-osmosis filtration process more potent than that used to turn seawater into drinking water. The water they are purifying is ready to drink-they are re-cleaning perfectly clean tap water." ("Message in a Bottle", 2007).

    Let's just take a moment to recap. One billion people can't get clean water. As a result, each year the parents of 15 million children watch them die from diarrhoea. I, on the other hand, have clean, carefully tested water to give my child every time I turn on the tap. I don't even have to leave my house to get it-in fact, since I have taps in three rooms in my house, most of the time I don't even have to leave the room. Yet every year, I and my fellow Australians spend half a billion dollars to buy water that has been put through a rigorous cleaning process-twice. And all because it's convenient and it's cool.

    OK. But let's not get carried away-drinking bottled water is not a sin. There are worse things, right?

    At the end of the day
    Whole Foods CEO and co-founder John Mackey said, "You can compare bottled water to tap water and reach one set of conclusions, but if you compare it with other packaged beverages, you reach another set of conclusions ... It's unfair to say bottled water is causing extra plastic in landfills, and it's using energy transporting it. There's a substitution effect-it's substituting for juices and Coke and Pepsi."

    And he's right. Australians spend more than $3 billion each year on soft drink and other bottled drinks. Of course, there are a whole heap of other concerns associated with that-the effect on our health to name just one, in a nation where obesity costs us $58 billion each year.

    Maybe bottled water is just the tip of the iceberg; just one litmus test of where our priorities as a world community are at. And maybe the results are not that great.

    "In Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji." ("Message in a Bottle", 2007)

    Since I don't live in Fiji, or any of the other places where clean water is not a given, it's easy for me to ignore the whole thing and hope someone else fixes it. But is that right?

    "Overcoming poverty is not an act of charity; it is an act of justice," said Nelson Mandela.

    Elissa Webster works for Compassion Australia (a Micah Challenge endorsing agency). Ensuring children and their caregivers have access to clean water is a key part of Compassion's holistic child development program. You can help provide children with clean water by supporting their Complementary Interventions program. You can also get involved with advocacy for better Water and Sanitation through the Micah Challenge SHARE THE EARTH MDG7 campaign.