Tapping into sustainable consumption

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Walking up and down the halls of the recent Ozwater’19 conference it wasn’t hard to get caught up in the excitement of all the innovative technologies that are being developed to combat the challenges facing the Australian water sector. But whilst innovation has to date been the key mechanism by which Australia has been able to supply reliable water and food to an expanding population in a climatically challenging environment, the rapid pace of climate change is increasingly challenging the capability and capacity of many innovations to meet growing national water demands.[1]

Climate change is a big issue facing the water industry and a direct link exists between the cumulative impacts of the resources used in driving our global economies (and our daily consumer choices) and the quality and availability of potable water for the Australia’s growing customer base. The poster child of this nexus? The not so humble plastic bottle of water.

In a country such as Australia – where we are fortunate to have a globally enviable drinking water standard[2] – bottled water is a completely unnecessary consumer item. But as laughable as its introduction by soft drink companies was in the 80s (lampooned by Mel Brooks no less, who joked that next we’d be buying bottled air), bottled water has since grown to be an ever present and ever wasteful product in daily life, right next to disposable coffee cups (incidentally both of which made cameo appearances in the recent Game of Thrones season finale[3]).

Australian’s now consume over 700 million litres of bottled water annually[4]. Even more bizarrely, around a third of the Australian bottled water market is made up of imports[5] (the Chinese bottled water supply of the 2019 Australian Open being a recent example[6]).

With all this in mind, it was refreshing to see Ozwater’19 continue its stance as a bottled water free event, and also a keynote address from Craig Reucassel (best known for going through your bins and highlighting the impacts of bottled water on the ABC’s The War on Waste series). But most of all, it was great to see the Choose Tap campaign make an appearance.

The Choose Tap campaign started in Victoria and was the first fully integrated, grass-roots program of its type in the world, including over 13 Australian water utilities and many community organisations. And now other campaigns exist also in Australia, including New South Wales’ Beat the Bottle campaign, and Queensland’s Turn to Tap campaign.

So why the fuss when it comes to consumption of bottled water? Quite simply, the production of bottled water consumes far more energy and water in its production, leaves a waste legacy, and ultimately costs consumers far more than tap water.

Most plastic water bottles end up in landfill where it takes up to 1,000 years to biodegrade a plastic bottle[7]. Or even worse, plastic water bottles end up as litter in our waterways and oceans where they contaminate the environment, making them a consistent top ten most common item picked up in annual Clean up Australia Day events[8].

Energy consumption and the associated greenhouse gas emissions are significantly higher in the production of bottled versus tap water. A large amount of energy goes into the capture, conveyance, treatment and manufacture (cleaning, filling, sealing, labelling and refrigerating) of bottled water. In fact, the total energy required in the production of bottled water (5.6-10.2 MJ per litre) is around 1,500 times that of tap water (typically around 0.005 MJ per litre) across the lifecycle of overall treatment and distribution.[9]

But perhaps the most direct link to the water industry is the additional water consumed through bottled water production – it can take up to 3 litres of potable water to produce 1 litre of bottled water (1 litre in the bottle, up to 2 litres in bottling, treatment and refrigeration, etc.)[10]. Even when spring water is sourced for bottling, this resource use competes with agricultural uses of underground aquifers, which can impact upon farmers, potentially lowering water tables, with associated social and environmental ramifications[11].

To top it off, all of these required energy, material and water inputs are ultimately reflected in the price tag – bottled water ($3 per litre) is approximately 1,000 times the cost of tap water ($3 per 1000 litres)[12].

The silver lining is that, in light of initiatives like Choose Tap (along with broader environmental awareness campaigns), public appetite has waned somewhat recently, but forecasts still predict continued market growth[13]. There remains also the persistent common perception that bottled water is healthier, more convenient and even tastier than tap water[14],[15], despite blind tests proving most can’t tell the difference[16]. Herein lies the ongoing challenge that will continue to exist in the battle of bottled water versus tap water – advertising budget.

As was the case when bottled water first appeared in developed countries in the 80s, persistent advertising has proven successful in shifting public perceptions against their better judgement. Australia’s demographics are also changing, and as immigration is the core contributor to national population growth, this brings different cultural perceptions regarding the use of tap water. Studies in Australia[17] and the United States[18] have indicated that embedded cultural challenges can exist in terms of relative levels of trust in drinking tap water. It therefore seems likely that the battle between bottled water and tap water will be ongoing.

So whilst campaigns like Choose Tap aren’t especially exciting in comparison to more technologically savvy industry developments, they are incredibly innovative and powerful in terms of community outreach vehicles regarding sustainability, and result in savings of energy and water resources, remove waste from the environment, and ultimately save customers money. The Australian water industry is also in a position through commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals to be a leader internationally in raising the global standard and profile of tap water[19]. Campaigns such as Choose Tap are therefore a critical tool that will require ongoing investment to engage the public as active participants in the discourse surrounding water security and sustainability in general.

Let’s be serious – choosing tap water over bottled water alone is not the silver bullet to solve Australia’s or the world’s water security challenges. But having sustainability at the forefront of public consciousness will certainly go a long way in helping to shape collective thought regarding the environmental impact of our consumer habits. In that way, we stand a real chance of tapping into sustainable consumption.

[1] Climate Council of Australia (2018) Deluge and Drought: Australia’s Water Security In A Changing Climate, Climate Council of Australia Limited

[2] McKinnell, J (2018) ‘Bottled water and why Aussies still drink it’, ABC News Australia, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-27/bottled-water-and-why-aussies-still-drink-it/10148130

[3] hhttps://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-20/a-stray-water-bottle-in-game-of-thrones-finale-1/11131764

[4] https://www.coolaustralia.org/bottled-water-secondary/

[5] Vuong, B. (2019) ‘Bottled Water Manufacturing in Australia’, IBISWorld Industry Report C1211b

[6] https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/food/drink/australian-open-under-fire-for-selling-chinese-bottled-water/news-story/1a120c06d721807bc9b55af237e0b65e

[7] The University of Sydney (2016) ‘Can You Say No to Bottled Water?’, Sydney Environment Institute, http://sydney.edu.au/environment-institute/news/can-you-say-no-to-bottled-water/

[8] The University of Queensland (2019) ‘The real cost of bottled water’, https://sustainability.uq.edu.au/projects/recycling-and-waste-minimisation/real-cost-bottled-water

[9] Yang, M, Ryu, JH, Jeon, R, Kang, D and Yoo, KY (2009), ‘Effects of bisphenol A on breast cancer and its risk factors’, Archives of Toxicology, vol. 83, pp. 281-5.

[10] http://www.sgwater.com.au/learning-centre/environment-sustainability/choose-tap/

[11] The University of Queensland (2019) ‘The real cost of bottled water’, https://sustainability.uq.edu.au/projects/recycling-and-waste-minimisation/real-cost-bottled-water

[12] The University of Queensland (2019) The real cost of bottled water, https://sustainability.uq.edu.au/projects/recycling-and-waste-minimisation/real-cost-bottled-water

[13] Vuong, B. (2019) ‘Bottled Water Manufacturing in Australia’, IBISWorld Industry Report C1211b

[14] Saylor, A, Prokopy, LS and Amberg, S (2011), ‘What’s Wrong with the Tap? Examining Perceptions of Tap Water and Bottled Water at Purdue University’, Environmental Management, vol. 48, pp. 588-601

[15] Vuong, B. (2019) ‘Bottled Water Manufacturing in Australia’, IBISWorld Industry Report C1211b

[16] McKinnell, J (2018) ‘Bottled water and why Aussies still drink it’, ABC News Australia, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-27/bottled-water-and-why-aussies-still-drink-it/10148130

[17] McKinnell, J (2018) ‘Bottled water and why Aussies still drink it’, ABC News Australia, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-27/bottled-water-and-why-aussies-still-drink-it/10148130

[18] Javidi, A. and Pierce, G. (2018) ‘U.S. Households’ Perception of Drinking Water as Unsafe and its Consequences: Examining Alternative Choices to the Tap’,

[19] https://www.wsaa.asn.au/news/join-urban-water-industry-commitment-un-sdgs