In our September 2012 issue of this Newsletter, we reprinted an article, entitled 'The Bottled Water Scam', from 'The Environment' magazine. The South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) challenged several statements in the story and we give Charlotte Metcalf, SANBWA's technical manager, the opportunity to respond:
Bottled water is one of the safest, healthiest and most environmentally-friendly packaged beverages on the restaurant table or in the retailer’s fridge.
Safest. SANBWA members (about 80% of South Africa’s bottled water volume) are required to adhere to a locally developed but globally benchmarked standard (www.sanbwa.org.za/guidelines.asp).
This benchmark provides a vision for improvements in six areas: management commitment, quality systems, HACCP, resources (including pre-requisite programs), operational controls and environmental stewardship. Members are audited every year to ensure adherence to the standard.
SANBWA also randomly samples member products and tests them for harmful agents. The SANBWA logo therefore acts as a seal of safety and quality.
In addition, the material used to manufacture bottled water bottles – PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – is approved as safe for food and beverage contact by regulatory agencies throughout the world. PET does not contain dioxins, or Bisphenol A, or DEHA, or endocrine disruptors. PET is inert and the idea that it ‘leaches’ harmful chemicals when frozen or heated is unsubstantiated by credible evidence. PET bottles can be re-used by consumers if they take steps to prevent the growth of bacteria, just as you would when re-using any other food or beverage containers.
Healthiest. Rising obesity and diabetes rates make water a healthier alternative – be it from a tap or bottle. But expecting consumers to replace bottled water with tap water is a mammoth task as bottled water competes with beverages for share of throat – people do drink both. If you doubt this, ask shoppers buying bottled water at a convenience store on a petrol forecourt or at a sports event what they would do if bottled water wasn’t available. Would they look for a tap or water fountain, or would they select another bottled beverage, possibly one laden with sugars?
Consumers who are unable to drink bottled water will not necessarily drink tap water instead. A recent study found approximately 30% of bottled water drinkers will choose tap water when bottled water is not available, but the remaining 70% will prefer another bottled beverage. Bottled water does not compete with tap water; it is a healthy alternative to other bottled beverages, a much appreciated fact particularly in countries where obesity and diabetes are on the rise. For soldiers on battle grounds, for victims of disasters, for mothers of infants in areas where the quality of drinking water cannot be guaranteed, and so on, bottled water is a necessary and appreciated product.
Environmentally-friendly. SANBWA members are required to conserve their water sources, and reduce the industry's impact on the environment. Their businesses are very water efficient. For example, the annual water usage by the total South African bottled water industry equates to 22,7 litres/second. This is just slightly more than that used by one – that’s one – golf course during a year.
Expressed as a ratio, the local industry water usage benchmark is 1.8:1, and there are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1.2:1 – 1.4:1 (not the 3:1 ratio of tap water mentioned in the Environment article; furthermore, most volume of bottled water is derived from natural and sustainable resources, not the tap).
All SANBWA members who bottle natural water and waters defined by origin are required to only bottle water extracted from a sustainable source, and this source is groundwater. South African legislation covering the use of groundwater is well developed, and is directed towards ensuring the sustainability of water resources, rather than depleting them.
The total groundwater consumption by the bottled water industry (production volumes plus incidental use) in 2011 was 0.72 million m3. This equates to less than 0.015% of the country’s total groundwater usage.
Also, South Africa uses approximately 150 000 tons (1%) of the 15 million tons of PET resin made globally every year. Of this 150 000 tons, only 6 000 tons (4%) are used by the local bottled water industry; the remaining 96% is used to bottle other beverages and other products, including food. The usage by the bottled water industry translated into 794-million 500ml bottles in 2011 (397-million litres) and not the 1.2-trillion suggested in the Environment article.
According to PET recycling concern Petco, some 42% of PET bottles in South Africa are recycled.
Conclusion. Like the planet we inhabit, our bodies comprise mostly water. Water – in all its forms – is therefore a vital component of our diet, as well as the healthiest beverage option for societies plagued by diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Bottled water has the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages – one that can be reduced by 25% if consumers were to simply recycle.