Tap Versus Bottled Water Debate Boils Over

GLAND, Switzerland, May 3, 2001 (ENS) - Is bottled water really no better than tap water? Conservation group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) thinks so, which is why it is urging consumers to forego bottled water for the sake of the environment and their wallets.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), whose members account for more than 80 percent of all bottled water sales in the U.S., says the WWF is long on rhetoric and short on facts.


Fifty four percent of Americans regularly drink bottled water. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
The WWF bases its claims on a 26 page study by Catherine Ferrier of the University of Geneva, Switerland. WWF commissioned the study, called, "Bottled Water: Understanding a social phenomenon."

The world bottled water market represents an annual volume of 89 billion liters, and is estimated to be worth US$22 billion. No one drinks more than the Italians (107 litres per year per inhabitant) and Western Europeans as a whole, drink nearly half of all the world's bottled water. In United States, 54 percent of Americans regularly drink bottled water.

Ferrier's study says that despite selling for up to 1,000 times the price of tap water, bottled water may be no safer, or healthier than tap water in many countries. Yet, it is the fastest growing drinks industry in the world.

Concerns over the safety of municipal water sources combined with clever marketing, which portrays bottled water as being drawn from pristine sources, helps to fuel the growth of the bottled water industry says the study.

Yet the only difference between some bottled waters and tap water is that one is distributed in bottles, the other through pipes. There are more standards regulating tap water in Europe and the U.S. than those applied to the bottled water industry, adds the study.

"Our attitudes towards tap water are being shaped by the pollution which is choking the rivers and streams, which should be veins of life," said Richard Holland, director of WWF's Living Waters Campaign.

"We must clean up and properly protect these waters at source, and not just at the treatment works, so that we can all rest easy in drinking from the tap."

The study accepts that while bottled water is generally safer in areas where tap water may be contaminated, boiling or filtering local water renders it safe at a much lower cost for people on a low income.

purification system

A UV water purification system made by Berson InLine, installed at Mery sur Oise near Paris, France. (Photo courtesy STL Technology, Inc.)
The study cites the Rome based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which states that for nutritional value, bottled water is no better than tap water. It may contain small amounts of minerals but so does tap water from many public municipal water supplies.

Every year 1.5 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water and toxic chemicals can be released during the manufacture and disposal of the bottles, says the study.

A quarter of the 89 billion liters of water bottled worldwide annually are consumed outside their country of origin and emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, caused by transporting bottled water within and between countries, contribute to global climate change, it adds.

"Bottled water should not be considered a sustainable alternative to tap water, as it is not exempt from periodical contamination," concludes the report. "In addition, tap water is more energy efficient as it is provided through underground pipes, compared to fuel and energy needed for filling bottles and transporting them around the world.

"Tap water is and should remain a public service meant to deliver good quality drinking water."

"Bottled water isn't a long term sustainable solution to securing access to healthy water," said Holland.

"Clean water is a basic right. Protecting our rivers, streams and wetlands will help ensure that tap water remains a service which delivers good quality drinking water for everyone at a fair price."

In a statement today, the IBWA supported WWF's calls to clean up and better protect water resources but said the organization was mistaking the bottled water industry for the problem itself.

bottled water

Western Europeans continue to be the greatest consumers of bottled water. (Photo courtesy IBWA)
"In an attempt to draw attention to the need to clean up the world's water resources, the WWF has chosen to pit tap water against bottled water, while offering no meaningful solutions to the problem," said the statement.

"Regardless of whether water comes from the tap or from a bottle, the world should demand it be clean, safe and available for future generations. The fact is, people are increasingly choosing bottled water because of its consistent high quality, safety, taste and convenience."

The association addressed several of WWF's criticisms as follows:

The association says it supports all efforts to clean up and properly protect waters at the source.

"Promoting negative misinformation about bottled water does absolutely nothing to advance this vital goal," it added.

To read "Bottled Water: Understanding a social phenomenon," click here.

For more on the IBWA, click here.