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4th Feb 2023

EU bottled water boom poses environmental questions

  • Bottled water costs 10,000 times more than tap water but is not guaranteed to be any healthier than tap water (Photo: Wikipedia)

Europeans are drinking more and more bottled water amid preoccupation with weight loss and cravings for emotional experiences like "naturalness," industry surveys show, but the water boom has an environmental cost and water marketing is not always what it seems.

European consumers drank 50.3 billion litres of bottled water in 2006 according to figures from industry analysts Canadean and Zenith International, with average market growth of 3.3 percent a year since 2000. To put things into perspective, the volume is more than two times the water in Lake Buttermere in the UK's Lake District.

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But individual markets are racing ahead of the average rate with nine to 12 percent growth in the UK and Spain last year and with annual growth of over 7 percent forecast for the next five years in new EU members such as Poland and the Baltic states. In 2006, bottled water consumption fell in one EU state - France - only, by a marginal amount.

Italy - the land of the bella figura - is the bottled water capital of Europe, with Italians guzzling 136 litres of non-flavoured water per person per year and with water forming 76 percent of the country's beverage market. Germany on 133 litres and France on 100 litres are not far behind.

In the fastest-growing markets such as the UK and Spain consumption is still only 23 to 69 litres per head leaving plenty of room for future growth. The Nordic states and the Netherlands - where people drink just over 20 litres per head and favour tap water instead - are the slowest.

Experts say 42 percent of consumers' choices are based on "enjoyment" and 35 percent on "convenience" with "health" on 23 percent. But health is where the future of the market lies, according to pundits such as Jake McCall, president of consultancy firm Second Sight Innovation.

"The growing groundswell against highly processed and artificial ingredients continues as the trend towards 'natural' accelerates," Mr McCall says in a major March report by UK beverage giant Britvic. "The increased consumer awareness of health...will continue to shape the market in the future."

"At the lowest level, soft drinks perform their basic functional purpose as a liquid – to hydrate," Britvic's own analysts write, pointing to record hot summers in recent years. "At the highest level, the needs become more emotional including treats, indulgence and social belonging."

The emotional and social aspects of bottled water are clear from advertising strategy: Perrier has been selling itself as the French "champagne" of bottled water since the 1930s. Evian's slogan is "live young." Volvic is trying to link in with sports and drought relief.

The rewards of getting branding right are huge. Last year, France's Danone group - which owns Evian and Volvic - sold €3.1 billion of still and fizzy water worldwide. Switzerland's Nestle - which owns Perrier - sells €5.9 billion of bottled water a year.

How clean is bottled water?

But for all the emotional benefits of "naturalness" associated with a gulp of Evian or Perrier by European consumers, the bottled water industry is selling a product which in many cases is no cleaner than tap water and which leaves behind it mountains of plastic waste.

A 2006 study by the Washington DC-based NGO the Earth Policy Institute found that, typically, bottled water costs 10,000 times more than tap water but "is not guaranteed to be any healthier than tap water. In fact, roughly 40 percent of bottled water begins as tap water" with minerals added later.

"What we are always saying is that the drinking water directive - which regulates tap water - is more tough than the bottled water directive," an EU official told EUobserver, while adding that this refers only to pollutants and not "positive" qualities of bottled waters, which may be rich in, say, magnesium.

Europe's bottled water sector uses close to 1 million tonnes a year of oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. Some is recycled. But a lot is dumped in landfills or shipped to China to be dumped in landfills, with PET taking up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.

The environmental footprint of the bottled water industry is made even bigger by export markets - up to 60 percent of brands like Evian and Volvic are shipped out of Europe to chic restaurants round the world. European consumers are plumping for ever-more exotic products like Fijian spring water to be shipped over here.

The feel-not-so-good factor

Industry is well aware that Europe's health-consciousness is tied up with ethical consumerism trends, with Britvic saying corn-based biodegradable polymers could one day become "mainstream" as "consumers become more forgiving of appearance, choosing the environment over aesthetic perfection" and willing to pay extra for "ethical supply chains."

But the feel-good factor of bottled water could be blunted by other, more basic concerns. Until the EU's slow-moving water framework directive kicks in between 2015 and 2027 it remains unclear in some cases who owns groundwater resources and who is responsible for licensing responsible use.

In two cases - documented by the BBC in 2005 - in Pedro Paulo Aina in Brazil and Michigan in the US Nestle's exploitation of natural springs saw natural water resources dry up or drop in quality, damaging local tourism and killing trees.

The UN's millennium development goal for halving the 1 billion people worldwide with no access to safe drinking water calls for €23 billion a year spending on global water management projects. Based on conservative estimates, EU consumers spend well over €25 billion a year on their bottled water appetite today.

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