We cannot live without water. The UN SDG #6 calls to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Despite the progress made in improving the availability of basic drinking water services, today more than 700 million people around the world still lack even this basic service (the WHO defines ‘basic service’ as an improved drinking-water source within a round trip of 30 minutes to collect water).
Safe drinking water is essential for human health, as contaminated water can transmit many diseases, including diarrhea, cholera, and polio. It is estimated that diarrhea caused by contaminated drinking water is responsible for nearly 500,000 death cases each year, many of which are children under the age of 5. In addition, poor water quality impacts education, as water-borne diseases are associated with poor school attendance and thus millions of school days lost. In under-developed and developing regions, the provisioning of safe drinking water contributes significantly to economic growth and improves productivity. That is due to improved health, higher school attendance, and the fact that people need to spend less time and effort collecting and delivering water to their families. The WHO estimated a return of 4.3$ for every 1$ invested in water and sanitation services, and an overall gain of 1.5% of global GDP.
Thanks to regulation and investments in water infrastructure, in nearly all developed countries the quality of tap water is high and tightly monitored, and only rarely an outbreak of water-borne disease occurs. In addition, in most countries safe water is affordable. And yet, the bottled water industry is flourishing and rapidly growing, as many of those who have access to safe and cheap drinking water prefer bottled water over tap water.
Today, millions of people around the world, in developed and developing countries, consume bottled water regularly. To illustrate, in 2007 approximately 212 billion liters of bottled water were consumed globally. By 2017, consumption reached 391 billion liters and consumption per capita increased as well.
It is likely that most consumers are not fully aware of the heavy environmental, social and economic costs associated with the consumption of bottled water. Compared to tap water, the quality of bottled water is less regulated and less monitored. The plastic bottles themselves often release unhealthy chemicals into the water, thus posing various health risks to the drinker. The manufacturing of the plastic bottles requires vast amounts of oil, as does the transportation of raw materials to the factories and final products to consumers. Many tons of CO2 are emitted to the atmosphere during these processes, thus contributing to climate change. While the used plastic bottles can be recycled, more often than not they end their life in landfills or in various ecosystems, where they pose a risk to wildlife. When the plastic wears out to microplastic it can pollute water resources and can accumulate in tissues of animals and humans. As it takes decades for the plastic to decompose, the full health and environmental impacts of bottled water are not yet fully known and understood. So why pay for bottled water which is harmful to the environment and health, and could be tens and even hundreds of times more expensive than the safe tap water running in the pipelines?