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Back to tap: bottled water's enviro-woes

07-Jan-2008

It looks set to be a vintage year ahead for Chateau Eau De Source Public - or as it is more humbly known, tap water - as consumers find themselves encouraged to shun the mineral variety of the product to reduce packaging waste.

But is singling out bottled water over other beverages as an environmental menace for using plastic packaging as well as its carbon footprint a constructive means of protecting the environment? Clearly many think so, but it seems to be easier to target consumers' beverage choice, than to focus on the fact that more work is needed to ensure all packaging waste is finding its way to recycling plants. From 1 January this year, the government of the city of Chicago implemented a five cent tax on bottled water sales to discourage consumers from the product, much to the ire of the industry. The US city has not been alone in its concern over growing bottled water consumption and its effect on leftover materials. San Francisco's mayor Gavin Newsom last year announced a ban on the city's departments using money to buy bottled water, while New York officials are urging consumption of tap water to cut down on the city's high levels of packaging waste. By November, an Australian environmental coalition joined a growing number of international groups committing themselves to pressuring restaurants and other outlets to drop selling bottled water and offer the tap variety instead. Personally, more out of respect for my wallet than mother nature, tap water has always seemed the preferable choice when in a restaurant, bar or any place that has access to a tap. I can understand, therefore, pushing tap water in restaurants, but I fear the argument for a total clampdown is somewhat unfair and misleading, considering the pressure on processors and consumers to turn to healthier soft drink alternatives. When it comes to turning to vending machines or retailers when in need of spontaneous refreshment, is packaged water any worse than purchasing a bottled energy or soft drink? Ideally, it is preferable to fill a re-usable flask or container with water before setting out. But then could the same not be said for fruit juices, hot drinks or any beverage or food product? The beverage industry as a whole could perhaps appease critics by finding more solutions to refilling existing packaging, including beverage alternatives that can be diluted rather than supplying individual packaging. But this is not a challenge that bottled water manufacturers face alone. It is perhaps a sign then that the bottled water industry is a victim of its own success. Bottled water sales are set to outgrow the once dominant carbonated beverage segment within two years, according to recent research by analyst Zenith International. If the current market growth continues, global consumption of the product is expected to grow to 251bn litres by 2011 from 187bn litres in 2006, Zenith added. This potential is coming in part from growing innovation within the bottled water market, particular for added-value waters that claim to offer nutritional or cosmetic benefits. In Western Europe alone, functional water consumption rose to an estimated 273m litres in 2006 from just 30m litres in 2000, according to Zenith. Amidst this growing potential, the industry unsurprisingly opposes the environmental calls on cutting down on bottled water consumption. The International Bottled Water Association told BeverageDaily.com last year that it believed consumers were not uniformly replacing tap water with bottled water; but were choosing bottled water over the other beverages available at the store and home. While these claims may be open to interpretation, calls for an improved focus on recycling have generally been welcomed by all parties. The plastic bottles in which mineral water and many other soft drinks are contained in is 'fully' recyclable, though the onus is 'fully' on the consumer to return the packaging. Instead of focusing on drinking habits, a sea change in the culture and means for recycling and reusing packaging is surely a more adept strategy in the long-run for both the industry, legislators and consumers.


Neil Merrett is a staff reporter for BeverageDaily.com, and has written on a number of issues for publications in both the UK and France. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail Neil.Merrett 'at' decisionnews.com.

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