The View From A Farr – In defence of bottled water
A recent BBC TV documentary in the UK has re-opened the debate about the environmental costs of bottled water. Annette Farr believes the documentary was one-sided and irresponsible.
A much trailed and anticipated BBC documentary on the bottled water industry rather shot itself in the foot within the first two minutes of transmission. "It's not especially good for us," said presenter Jeremy Vine, adding "it's a fad we can't afford."
Clearly, this was going to be a programme skewed in one direction only: the "what's wrong with tap water brigade" having another go at bottled water.
To skate over the health benefits that drinking water, whether from bottle or tap, offers is hugely irresponsible. The industry has worked extremely hard over recent years in advising consumers on the importance of hydration and the health benefits from drinking just plain H20.
Ian Hall, adviser to Highland Spring and former chairman of the Natural Mineral Water Association, says the Government is spending millions of pounds on trying to persuade consumers, especially children, to eat and drink in a more healthy fashion. He maintains that bottled water is the healthy alternative to carbonated soft drinks and believes that if consumers returned to the tap it would be extremely dangerous for children's health.
To completely ignore the reason why many consumers choose to drink bottled water demonstrated imbalance. As Jo Jacobius, director of British Bottled Water Producers (BBWP), says: "Whatever kind of water is good for you. It just depends on whether you like your water naturally clean or chemically cleansed. Compared with alcohol or other soft drinks, natural mineral waters and spring waters are arguably the healthiest drinks you can buy."
Although Richard Laming from the Bottled Water Information Office (BWIO) rightly observed in the programme that "Tap water is perfectly safe", let's just remind ourselves that in July 1988 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate were dumped in the mains water supply in the Camelford area of Cornwall which caused people to suffer irreparable brain damage and in December 2005 70,000 people in Wales were advised to boil their water due to the presence of the parasite crypotosporidium
As the mains water supply was having to deal with accusations over the safety of its water in the late 1980s, Perrier was making its mark on the UK bottled water scene with some sophisticated marketing. The documentary referred to this as "opening up our wallets to bottled water".
Back then, in many respects it was literally the sparkle of Perrier which attracted consumers. But since then still water has overtaken sparkling. And why? Because consumers - some 30m in the UK according to Liz Bastone of the BWIO - prefer the taste and purity that the product offers. Consumers understand the health credentials of drinking water. The convenience of having pure bottled water with closures that are easy to open and close to drink 'on the go' throughout the day is now, for many, routine and their choice.
As the BBWP points out, the movement of bottled water compared with other products - whether within the UK or internationally - is negligible. In the UK, 75% of all water sold is British, the rest comes from France in electric trains. So why single out bottled water as being overtly guilty in the food miles debate?
Fiji Water, highlighted in the programme, is not your run-of-the-mill bottled water. It positions itself as a premium water with premium qualities, hence its inclusion in Claridges' Water Menu. You'd be hard pressed to find Fiji Water in the chiller cabinet of your local c-store or supermarket. However, Fiji did declare that it became carbon negative at the beginning of 2008 and is reported to be working with Conservation International to preserve the largest remaining area of rainforest in Fiji.
But why pick on bottled water in the first place? The manner in which the drink is produced, packaged, transported and put on shelf is no different from that of any other beverage. If anything, the fact that spring and natural mineral water is bottled at source means less environmental impact that those beverages which come from large production sites.
As the BBWP states: "Because natural waters must be free from contamination the aquifers from which they are drawn must be free from any form of pollution as the waters must come from an identified and protected source." Highland Spring, for example, has kept its catchment area free from pesticides and pollution and is now accredited as organic by the Soil Association.
The bottled water industry's use of plastic packaging is no different from many other drinks and food products. Indeed, great strides are being made to reduce the amount of plastic used. The BWIO says that PET bottles now weigh 30% less than they did 15 years ago and producers are using more recycled PET in their bottles. Furthermore, the latest figures show that bottled water's contribution to the UK's entire carbon footprint is just 0.03% with producers committed to cutting this even further.
For environment minister Phil Woolas to declare that drinking bottled water is "morally unacceptable and daft" while one of the crises facing the world was the lack of a safe and clean water supply for many people, only shows how little he understands the industry.
He should be reminded that everyday in the UK 4.3bn litres of water leaks out from the country's mains water supply. Compare that to the 6m litres of bottled water drunk each day. Bad form that the documentary, produced by the BBC's Panorama team, did not explore this outrageous wastage.
As Liz Bastone says: "30m people who enjoy bottled water in Britain don't think bottled water is daft and neither did Mr Woolas' own department when the Government required bottled water supplies during last year's floods."
Phil Woolas says that for "taste, purity and the environment" we should all be drinking tap water. Wrong again. Tap water is not pure; a cocktail of disinfectants is used as the water is chemically cleaned for human consumption.
The Panorama programme was one-dimensional: an emotive, negative examination of a thriving industry which is contributing to the health of the nation in more ways than one.
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