Bottled water industry undermining safe water for all

The rapidly growing bottled water industry can undermine progress towards a key sustainable development goal: safe water for all says a new United Nations report.

The rapidly growing bottled water industry can undermine progress towards a key sustainable development goal: safe water for all says a new United Nations report.

The report says that in just five decades, the bottled water industry has become “an essentially standalone economic sector.” It experienced 73 per cent growth between 2010 to 2020. Sales should almost double by 2030, from US$270 billion to $500 billion.

The report has come just a few days prior to World Water Day (March 22) and was prepared by UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health. It concludes that the rapid expansion of the bottled water industry “does not align strategically with the goal of providing universal access to drinking water. At the very least, it slows global progress in this regard. It distracts development efforts and redirects attention to a less reliable and less affordable option for many. At the same time, it remains highly profitable for producers.”

“The rise in bottled water consumption reflects decades of limited progress in and many failures of public water supply systems,” said Kaveh Madani, UNU-INWEH’s Director.

When the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed upon in 2015, experts estimated an annual investment of US$ 114 billion was needed annually to 2030 to achieve a key target: universal safe drinking water.

The report says providing safe water to roughly 2 billion people without it requires less than half the US$ 270 billion now spent every year on bottled water.

“This points to a global case of extreme social injustice. Billions of people worldwide do not have access to reliable water services. Yet others enjoy water luxury.”

Tap water perceptions

The study quotes surveys showing bottled water is often perceived in the Global North as healthier and tastier than tap water. It is more a luxury good than a necessity. In the Global South, sales are driven by the lack of reliable public water supplies. In some cases, this is exacerbated by water delivery infrastructure limitations due to rapid urbanization.

Bottled water is linked to poor tap water quality or unreliable public water supply systems in mid and low-income countries. These problems are often caused by corruption and chronic underinvestment in piped water infrastructure.

Beverage corporations are adept at marketing bottled water as a safe alternative to tap water. They draw attention to isolated public water system failures, says UNU-INWEH researcher and lead author Zeineb Bouhlel. She added that “even if in certain countries piped water is or can be of good quality, restoring public trust in tap water is likely to require substantial marketing and advocacy efforts.”

Not necessarily safe

Dr Bouhlel notes that the source of bottled water, the treatment processes used, the storage conditions, and packaging can all potentially alter water quality. This may be inorganic, organic and microbiological.

According to the report, “the mineral composition of bottled water can vary significantly between different brands. It can also occur within the same brand in different countries, and even between different bottles of the same batch.”

The report lists examples from over 40 countries of contamination of hundreds of bottled water brands and types.

“This review constitutes strong evidence against the perception that bottled water is a safe drinking water source,” said Dr Bouhlel.

The bottled water industry generally faces less scrutiny than public water utilities

Co-author Vladimir Smakhtin is a past Director of UNU-INWEH. He underscored the report’s finding that “bottled water is generally not nearly as well-regulated. There are fewer tests and fewer parameters compared to tap water. Strict water quality standards for tap water are rarely applied to bottled water. Even if such analyses are carried out, the results seldom make it to the public domain.”

The bottled water industry has largely avoided the scrutiny governments impose on public water utilities. Amid the market’s rapid growth, it is “probably more important than ever to strengthen legislation that regulates the industry overall. That includes its water quality standards in particular.”

With respect to the industry’s environmental impacts, the report says there is “little data available on water volumes extraction.” This is largely due to the lack of transparency and legal foundation that would have forced bottling companies to disclose that information publicly and assess the environmental consequences.”

What about the significance of local impacts?

“Local impacts on water resources may be significant,” the report says.

In the USA, for example, Nestlé Waters extracts 3 million litres a day from Florida Springs. Danone extracts up to 10 million litres a day from Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps. In China, the Hangzhou Wahaha Group extracts up to 12 million litres daily from Changbai Mountains springs.

Regarding plastic pollution, the researchers cite estimates that the industry produced around 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, which converts to some 25 million tonnes of PET waste. Most of it is not recycled and will end up in landfills. This represents a mass of plastic equal to the weight of 625,000 40-ton trucks. It is enough to form a bumper-to-bumper line from New York to Bangkok.

According to the report, the bottled water sector used 35 per cent of the PET bottles produced globally in 2019; 85 per cent winded up in landfills or unregulated waste.

By the numbers

Among the report’s many insights, derived from data analysis and other information assembled from global studies and literature:

  • Over 1 million bottles of water are sold worldwide every minute.
  • Annual spending per capita worldwide is US$34.
  • Worldwide annual consumption of the three main bottled water types is estimated at 350 billion litres.
  • The biggest market segment (with 47 per cent of global sales) is treated bottled water. It could originate from public water systems or surface water, and undergoes a disinfection treatment such as chlorination.
  • Citizens of Asia-Pacific are the biggest bottled water consumers, followed by North Americans and Europeans.
  • 60 per cent of global sales are in the “Global South” (Asia-Pacific, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean).
  • By country, the USA is the largest market, with around US$ 64 billion in sales. The next largest markets are China (almost US$ 45 billion) and Indonesia (US$ 22 billion). Together, these three countries constitute almost half of the world market. Other top countries by sales: Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Thailand, Mexico, Thailand, Italy, Japan.
  • The average cost of a bottle of water in North America and Europe is around US$ 2.50. This is more than double the price in Asia, Africa and LAC ($0.80, $0.90 and $1, respectively). Australia, the fifth largest market, has the highest average price: $3.57 per unit.
  • Bottled water per litre can cost 150 to 1,000 times more than the price a municipality charges for tap water.
  • Biggest per capita consumers: Singapore and Australia. Citizens of Singapore spent $1,348 per capita on bottled water in 2021, and Australians $386.
  • According to previous studies, about 31 per cent of Canadians, 38 per cent of Americans, and 60 per cent of Italians use bottled water as their primary drinking source. In the Dominican Republic, 60 per cent of households use bottled water as their primary water source. About 80 per cent of Mexicans use bottled water, and 10 per cent use home-purified water as their primary drinking water source. About 90 per cent cite health concerns for doing so.
  • Egypt is the fastest-growing market for treated bottled water (40 per cent per year). Seven other countries from the Global South are among the top 10 fastest-growing markets. They are Algeria, Brazil, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, India, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
  • In Europe, Germany is the biggest bottled water market.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, Mexico is the biggest market.
  • In Africa, South Africa is the biggest market.
  • Treated water appears to be the market’s largest component by volume, while natural waters appear to generate the most profit.
  • Treated and mineral waters have been the fastest-growing markets since 2018 (10 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively). The other natural water market is growing at around 5 per cent.
  • Five companies – PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé S.A., Danone S.A, and Primo Corporation have combined sales of $65 billion, over 25 per cent of the global total.
  • Earlier studies of water withdrawals declared in India, Pakistan, Mexico and Nepal showed total estimated withdrawals by Coca-Cola and Nestlé in 2021 at 300 and 100 billion litres, respectively.

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