Britain's love affair with bottled water - a national scandal?

| 11th April 2013

Taste the difference. The perceived superior quality of bottled water is entirely subjective.

Leading academic brands industry a "scam" as campaigners condemn our growing thirst for bottled water
The UK bottled water industry releases 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year

One of Britain's leading authorities on water supplies has branded the bottled water industry a scam, backing campaigners' claims of wasted millions and environmental pollution at a time when tap water standards have never been higher.

Professor Paul Younger, Rankine Chair of Engineering at Glasgow University, has highlighted growing fears that our increasing consumption of bottled water is damaging the environment while raising huge profits for the big brands, despite Britain having one of the best mains water supplies in the world.

The product continues to attract buyers in increasing numbers. Last year was the most profitable ever for the UK's largest manufacturer of sparkling water, Highland Spring, reflecting what has become a remarkable British success story for the bottled water industry.

But Prof Younger, widely respected as a specialist in water resources and groundwater engineering, and currently Chair of the Global Scientific Committee of the Planet Earth Institute, said he was concerned that people were "forsaking the wonderfully clean and rigorously tested upland waters that flow from our taps, in favour of water in plastic bottles".

Universities, independent consumer groups and campaigners including the WWF claim the product is damaging the environment and a huge waste of money - in the UK alone, the market is worth around £1.5 billion annually.

Prof Younger said: "The bottled water industry is very largely a scam, and a very expensive one at that, in terms of both money and extravagant carbon footprint."

With a customer base that cuts across the social spectrum - from offices and factories to supermarkets and corner shops, it is hard to escape the presence of this ubiquitous product.

"It's like Saudis selling sand to the Arabs," quipped one customer I spoke to, clutching a bottle of Highland Spring in an Edinburgh supermarket. "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why I buy water. It's a healthy choice, I suppose. It never really crossed my mind to think about it."

This lighthearted response typifies public awareness of the issue - according to recent government surveys on tap water, the majority of people base their opinion on subjective experiences, such as taste and appearance.

The UK bottled water industry releases 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year

Further persuaded of the purity and beneficial effects of the bottled alternative by corporate marketing, consumers are often unaware of the true scale of Britain's bottled water industry, how it operates, and the potentially damaging effects of a product that, on the surface, seems harmless enough.

In the mind of the consumer it is, after all, simply water - and somehow better than the stuff issuing from our taps.

The facts suggest a different story.

Viewed from a global context, public tap water supplies in Britain are of exceptional quality. In the latest annual report published by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, published last July, samples from 1.9 million tests in England and Wales achieved 99.96 compliance with legal standards - and the figure has been above 99 per cent for nearly 20 years. In Scotland, the Drinking Water Quality Regulator's latest report, last September, reported 99.84 per cent compliance with legal standards.

The Regulator, which is independent of the water supplier, has said people can be confident that British tap water is amongst the best in the world .

But the Regulator's report has not prevented some people from making the switch to bottled water, in the belief it is better for their health. According to Prof Younger, this is no way to tackle health concerns.

"There is no reason to suppose that bottled water is safer than tap water - in fact, some unfortunate people have a bad reaction to small quantities of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which dissolves into bottled water from the bottle itself," he said.

"Add to that the fact that bottled water has no in-built resistance to infection after opening - unlike tap water, which has a built-in disinfection capacity, and there is every reason to prefer tap water to bottled water if health is your worry."

Switching to bottled water also has financial consequences, as the bottled product can be several hundred to thousands of times more expensive than tap water. Studies by sources including the United Nations, the University of Nottingham, and independent consumer group Which? have given a typical price differential between bottled and tap supplies of between 100 and 1,000.

In retail environments, where bottled water is a very visible product - many supermarkets now offer these items as part of a "meal deal" - this price differential is obscured by the presence of more expensive soft drinks, creating the impression that water is comparatively good value.

The cost is not merely financial. Production of water bottles depends on oil - researchers at the University of Nottingham's Environmental Technology Centre found each litre bottle uses around 160g, a process which releases around 100g of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. An estimated 13 billion plastic water bottles were bought in the UK at the last count, in 2007 - and consumption levels for 2012 were similar.

Added to this carbon footprint are emissions from transportation. Water is heavy and its movement across the UK places substantial fuel demands on polluting vehicles - suppliers in England, Scotland and Wales compete for business in the busy market where boundaries are set only by what is profitable.

Prof Younger, who tackles these and other issues in  his book, "Water: All That Matters", pointed out some water products also arrive in Britain from overseas, "often from places no more salubrious than our upland reservoirs - and often crossing oceans from countries with far poorer water resources".

The cumulative effect, reports the London-based Natural Hydration Council, is 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year, from the UK bottled water industry alone.

Every bottle consumed then becomes one of the billions of bottles discarded annually as refuse. The most optimistic estimates indicate only around one-quarter are recycled, with the bulk going to landfill - where the plastic can take up to 400 years to decompose, or to incinerators, adding further to air pollution.

For Britain, though, any concerns that the nation's water industry is complicit in damaging the environment while an equivalent alternative product is cheaply and cleanly available in almost every home and workplace - from a tap, is having no bearing on public behaviour.

This is borne out by statistics that show consumption across the UK is continuing to increase. According to industry body, the British Bottled Water Producers: "As a nation we now drink more bottled water than fruit juices and nectars, wines and spirits. UK bottled water consumption per person advanced to nearly 34 litres in 2011, up from 26.9 litres in 2001".

The BBWP says this figure is expected to rise to almost 41 litres per person by 2021.

In the UK in 2012, the cumulative consumption of bottled water amounted to around two billion litres, worth around £1.5 billion - a figure that is predicted to grow to around £2 billion over the next four years.

Public enthusiasm for bottled water is also reflected in the UK Government's Office of National Statistics, which included the product as an item in the "standard shopping basket" for the first time in 2010.

According to customer testimonials provided by suppliers, other markets for the product have included local authorities, the NHS, schools, hotels, leisure clubs, factories and businesses.

With shoppers and corporate clients in the public and private sectors apparently sold on bottled water, the future appears bright for Britain's suppliers. It is certainly the case for Perthshire-based Highland Spring Group, the UK's largest supplier of sparkling bottled water, where last year turnover reached a record £79.8 million.

In September, the company also announced a 15 per cent increase in sales compared to the previous year. In 2013, Highland Spring expects to reach sales of 400 million litres for the first time.

With other major UK suppliers including Buxton and Brecon also muscling in on the multi-million pound bottled water market, the bonanza for these companies shows no sign of waning.

For WWF, the rise in bottled water consumption in the UK and around the world is a worrying trend. The environmental campaigning organisation says bottled water is not a sustainable alternative to the provision of high quality public water supplies.

The WWF's freshwater specialist Dr Conor Linstead told me: "There is no reason why people should avoid drinking tap water in the UK. From a health point of view, there is no difference between tap water and bottled water."

Dr Linstead also expressed concerns at the cost of transporting bottled water around the UK, from both a financial and environmental perspective.

He said: "People buy bottled water because of the way it is marketed, and because it is convenient. They see it as a healthy alternative to sugary drinks. But there's no reason why they couldn't refill those bottles with tap water."

The WWF adds that bottled water is a waste of money, and says there are more standards regulating tap water than bottled water in Europe. It warns that toxic chemicals can be released into the environment during the manufacture and disposal of plastic bottles, and says emissions of carbon dioxide from the transport of bottled water within and between countries is contributing to climate change.

Adding to the backlash against the bottled water industry, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has pointed out that, in terms of nutritional value, bottled water is no better than tap water, and that while the bottled product may contain small amounts of minerals, so does tap water from many public water supplies.

On a global scale, where annual expenditure on bottled water is estimated at $100 billion, the United Nations has said that if had only one-sixth of that total, it could cut in half the number of people without access to clean water - estimated by the World Health Organisation at nearly 900 million, or almost one in six people.

In Britain, reaching out for bottled water looks like an easy choice. At work or play, it has never been easier - and in the supermarket or corner shop, it is easier still. We are buying this ubiquitous product in increasing quantities, and its popularity is showing no signs of waning.

For others, bottled water is bad for the environment, and a shocking waste of money.

Armed with the facts and fighting back against powerful corporate marketing and poor public awareness, campaigners say that when it comes to bottled water, there is simply no choice at all.

Prof Younger added: "That's not to say there is no place for bottled water - but in a sensible world, that place would be really rather small and insignificant."

For more information visit;

The Water Project (,

Zero Waste Europe (,

Food and Water Watch (

Think Outside the Bottle (

David Gray is a freelance journalist based in East Lothian who has written for national newspapers and magazines in the UK. A degree in Forestry led to a lifelong interest in the environment. He has also edited two weekly newspapers, and now writes broadly on issues of environmental concern, social justice, the arts, and historic culture.

Image courtesy of

If you found this article interesting and enjoy reading articles on the Ecologist website, please consider making a donation to support the continuation of this free service.