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Is bottled water better for you?

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Bottled water is making a big splash in Australia, with over a quarter of us buying it in the last week according to Roy Morgan. So, what are you paying for when you buy bottled water, what is the real cost, and are there any alternatives?

The bottled water industry

The bottled water industry in Australia is worth almost $700 million, and enjoys steady growth despite mounting criticism from environmental groups. Aussies bought 727 million litres last year (that’s 291 Olympic-size swimming pools) and, on a global scale, sales are set to overtake soft drinks.

What you are really buying

You may not like it when it happens, but free fresh water falls from the sky. Access to this water is often no more than a few dozen steps away, especially when at home or at the office. However, bottled water is more expensive than the petrol you put in your car.

Graph source

Compared with your regular tap water, the mark up on bottled water is reported to be as high as 180,000%.

For the cost of bottled water, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re buying something superior to what flows from the tap. Bottled water products can be broadly separated into two categories, spring and purified:

What’s true in all cases of bottled water is only a tiny fraction of the cost is actually for the water itself.

Why bottled water is so expensive

There are a few main elements that make up the cost of a bottle of water.

  1. Marketing
  2. Bottling
  3. Packaging
  4. Transportation

Marketing takes a large piece of the cost pie. A trip down the supermarket aisle reveals that the tried-and-tested way to sell water is to talk about purity and nature. Mountains and lakes feature heavily and colours like blue and green give a splash of colour to an otherwise transparent product. Turn on the TV and puppets even make an appearance…

Wait, puppets?

Cool ridge is in the top 4 bottled water retailers.  Their advertising is just one example of tying all the key messages together in a beautiful advert. With repeated use of words such as “pure” and “natural”, marketing is designed to imply that tap water is inferior to pre-bottled.

Is bottled better?

While bottled water may be essential in some parts of the world, the mains water supply in Australia is subject to some of the most stringent regulation in the world – stricter, ironically, than the guidelines set forth by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) for other beverage products. Tap water in Oz is extremely safe, and likely to be safer than bottled water due to its stringent testing. As discussed in this study from amt.edu.au, tap water is tested for contamination daily, whereas some bottled water is only tested monthly.

The real cost of bottled water

Essentially when buying bottled water you are paying a premium for convenience, but real cost can’t always be measured in dollars. Even if manufacturers put mountain landscapes and flowing waterfalls in their ads, the environmental impact of our consumption of bottled water certainly isn’t natural.

Cleanup.org give an idea of the environmental cost of bottled water, below is a snapshot.

“In the image below from dumpark.com, each dot of white represents 20kg of floating plastic in the ocean.

Related: How Standard drinks differ around the world

Screenshot from dumpark’s interactive Sailing Seas of Plastic

An alternative to bottled water

With widespread availability of exceptionally safe tap water, and favourable comparisons when it comes to taste in some studies, by far the best way to mitigate the above factors is to buy a reusable bottle. Here are a few suggestions:

Camelbak Eddy $29.95 / 750ml Innovative bite valve. Available in 600ml and 1000ml capacities, and also an insulated variant. Lifetime warranty.
Klean Kanteen Classic $27.95 / 532ml Manufactured from stainless steel for durability. Available in a number of capacities. Lifetime warranty.
IKEA BEHÅLLARE $4.99 / 600ml No fancy valves, but a great budget option.

Taking the most expensive option as an example (and the cost of tap water as close to zero as makes no odds), the bottle pays for itself after 12 trips to the convenience store. Based on buying bottled water twice a week, you stand to save $230 in one year by buying a refillable bottle.

Good to know: Any premises serving alcohol are legally obliged to provide tap water free-of-charge.

How much water we should be drinking

According to news.com.au we should all be aiming to drink around 4% of our body weight in water each day. For your average Aussies that’s 3.14 litres, and we get around 20% from food, so drinking 2-2.5  litres of water a day is a good target (more in hot weather and during exercise). It’s calorie-free and is recommended as the best option by the Dietitians Association of Australia.

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With a little forward-planning, this requirement can be met in a way that’s friendly to the atmosphere, the oceans and your wallet.

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