Bottled Water Can Slow Sustainable Development, Report

The rapidly growing bottled water industry can undermine progress towards a key sustainable development goal: safe water for all, and Asia-Pacific is home to the biggest bottled water consumers, according to a new United Nations report.

Based on an analysis of literature and data from 109 countries, the report says that in just five decades bottled water has developed into “a major and essentially standalone economic sector,” experiencing 73% growth from 2010 to 2020. And sales are expected to almost double by 2030, from US$270 billion to US$500 billion.

Released a few days prior to World Water Day (March 22), the report by UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) concludes that the unrestricted expansion of the bottled water industry “is not aligned strategically with the goal of providing universal access to drinking water or at least slows global progress in this regard, distracting development efforts and redirecting attention to a less reliable and less affordable option for many, while remaining highly profitable for producers.”

Says Kaveh Madani, UNU-INWEH’s new Director: “The rise in bottled water consumption reflects decades of limited progress in and many failures of public water supply systems.”

When the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed in 2015, he notes, experts elsewhere estimated an annual investment of US$114 billion was needed from 2015 to 2030 to achieve a key target: universal safe drinking water.

The report says providing safe water to the roughly 2 billion people without it would require an annual investment of less than half the US$270 billion now spent every year on bottled water.

According to the report, “the mineral composition of bottled water can vary significantly between different brands, within the same brand in different countries, and even between different bottles of the same batch.”

The report lists examples from over 40 countries in every world region of contamination of hundreds of bottled water brands and all bottled water types.

In mid- and low-income countries, bottled water consumption is linked to poor tap water quality and often unreliable public water supply systems – problems often caused by corruption and chronic underinvestment in piped water infrastructure.

Impact on Water Resources May be Significant

In the USA, for example, Nestlé Waters extracts 3 million litres a day from Florida Springs; in France, Danone extracts up to 10 million litres a day from Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps; and in China, the Hangzhou Wahaha Group extracts up to 12 million litres daily from Changbai Mountains springs.

Regarding plastic pollution, the researchers cite estimates that the industry produced around 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, which converts to some 25 million tonnes of PET waste – most of it not recycled and destined for landfills – a mass of plastic equal to the weight of 625,000 40-ton trucks, enough to form a bumper-to-bumper line from New York to Bangkok.

According to the report, the bottled water sector used 35% of the PET bottles produced globally in 2019; 85% wind up in landfills or unregulated waste.

By the numbers

Among the report’s many insights, derived from data analysis and other information assembled from global studies and literature:

  • Over 1 million bottles of water are sold worldwide every minute

  • Citizens of Asia-Pacific are the biggest bottled water consumers, followed by North Americans and Europeans

  • Biggest per capita consumers: Singapore and Australia. Citizens of Singapore spent US$1,348 per capita on bottled water in 2021, Australians US$386

  • Worldwide annual consumption of the three main bottled water types – treated, mineral, and natural – is estimated at 350 billion litres.

By country, the USA is the largest market, with around US$64 billion in sales, followed by China (almost US$45 billion) and Indonesia (US$22 billion). Together, these three countries constitute almost half of the world market. Other top countries by sales: Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Thailand, Mexico, Thailand, Italy, Japan

The average cost of a bottle of water in North America and Europe is around US$ 2.50, more than double the price in Asia, Africa and LAC ($0.80, $0.90 and $1, respectively). Australia, the fifth largest market, has the highest average price: US$3.57 per unit.

Bottled water per litre can cost 150 to 1,000 times more than the price a municipality charges for tap water.

Treated and mineral waters have been the fastest-growing markets since 2018 (10% and 12%, respectively); the other natural water market is growing at around 5%

Five companies – PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé S.A., Danone S.A, and Primo Corporation have combined sales of US$65 billion, over 25% of the global total

Earlier studies of water withdrawals declared in India, Pakistan, Mexico and Nepal showed total estimated withdrawals by Coca-Cola and Nestlé in 2021 at 300 and 100 billion litres, respectively.

#naturalresources #plasticpollution #unregulatedwaste

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