True cost of your bot­tle of wa­ter

Matamata Chronicle - - Your Paper, Your Place - GORD STE­WART

There’s one thing I just don’t get: bot­tled wa­ter.

Let’s call it ‘wa­ter-to- go’ – wa­ter in small plas­tic bot­tles bought at the store to sip at our leisure. It’s a phe­nom­e­non in de­vel­oped coun­tries for peo­ple with plenty of dis­pos­able in­come and en­ter­pris­ing busi­nesses happy to sep­a­rate them from it.

Bot­tled wa­ter is back in the news of late, what with New Zealand quite happy to pro­vide prod­uct to those en­ter­pris­ing busi­nesses at vir­tu­ally no cost (but that’s a topic for another time).

World­wide bot­tled wa­ter sales topped $215 bil­lion in 2015. We’re cer­tainly taken with it in New Zealand. But why? It can’t be be­cause it’s good value. Let’s say you live where coun­cil charges for wa­ter by vol­ume and the cost is $1.40 per cu­bic me­tre (or 1,000 litres).

And let’s say the cost of a litre bot­tle of wa­ter is $1.40 (mid-range in the su­per­mar­ket sur­vey I did). This puts the price of the bot­tle one thou­sand times more than tap wa­ter. Not a bad mark-up if you can get it! Es­pe­cially given that bot­tled wa­ter is usu­ally noth­ing more than fil­tered tap wa­ter or wa­ter from a spring or stream that pro­vides tap wa­ter for the lo­cals.

The cost of wa­ter from our coun­cil at a tar­geted rate – or pumped wa­ter from a bore on a rural prop­erty – is dra­mat­i­cally lower than wa­ter on a vol­ume charge. This puts the mark-up for us on that prized bot­tle of wa­ter even higher. Drink­ing bot­tled wa­ter has been pro­moted as fash­ion­able, even cool.

It’s all about ‘‘man­u­fac­tured de­mand’’ as An­nie Leonard says in The Story of Bot­tled Wa­ter (8-minute video, view it out on YouTube).

Bot­tled wa­ter has also been touted for its con­ve­nience. But what could be eas­ier than turn­ing on the tap?

Fill a bot­tle at home and take it with you. Re­fill it when­ever you run out. But there’s been a back­lash due to grow­ing con­cern for the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of the prod­uct. Peter Gle­ick, an in­ter­na­tion­ally-re­spected wa­ter sci­en­tist, has looked at the en­ergy required to bring bot­tled wa­ter to mar­ket, with man­u­fac­ture of the plas­tic bot­tles and trans­porta­tion the main vil­lains.

Bot­tom line: bot­tled wa­ter is 1000 to 2000-times more en­ergy in­ten­sive than tap wa­ter pro­duc­tion. This is de­pend­ing on the dis­tance it trav­els from source to store shelf.

Then there’s the get­ting-rid-ofit part. Given our low re­cy­cling rates in New Zealand (another topic for another time), a good two-thirds of the empty plas­tic bot­tles will end up in the land­fill, tak­ing up valu­able space for 500 years. One plas­tic bot­tle hardly mat­ters. But the many bil­lions pro­duced, trans­ported, used and dis­carded world­wide each year come with a cost.

Say­ing ‘‘no’’ to bot­tled wa­ter can be one small part of say­ing ‘‘yes’’ to a brighter fu­ture. It all adds up.

Gord Ste­wart is an en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity con­sul­tant and rural prop­erty owner in the district.

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