Bottled water is under attack from environmentalists who preach that tap water has a similar quality and saves a lot of energy since it does not need to be transported by trucks. That might be true, but bottled water is not our biggest problem when it comes to drinking habits.
All other beverages consume huge amounts of water and energy during their production processes, which makes their ecological impact far more detrimental than that of bottled water. Like bottled water, most of them are distributed in bottles and cans, too.
The new smokers
Bottled water has become one of the most powerful symbols of unsustainable practices. Giles Coren, an English food journalist, has coined bottled water drinkers “the new smokers”.
These fierce criticisms are understandable. After all, most western countries have good quality tap water, which makes bottled water (often from the same water sources) a bit of an absurdity. But, denouncing bottled water misses the point.
Indeed, trucking around tap water in plastic bottles creates unnecessary energy use and waste. However, so does trucking around Coca-Cola, Stella Artois and Chivas Regal. It is unfair to solely blame water even though it also happens to be distributed via pipes.
Switching from other beverages to bottled water would yield much more environmental profit than switching from bottled water to tap water.
More importantly, all other beverages use vast amounts of water and energy to produce, while water - even bottled water - does not. It takes water to grow crops, and it takes energy to fertilize, harvest and transport them.
Breweries use water and energy too. It takes 35 litres of water to produce one cup of tea, and 140 litres of water to produce one cup of coffee. When you add sugar in your coffee or tea, it gets even worse: every teaspoonful of sugar requires 50 cups of water to grow.
A glass of beer takes 75 litres of water to produce, while just one glass of wine asks 120 litres of water. One glass of fruit juice or milk requires 170 to 200 litres of water. A glass of brandy asks 2,400 litres of water.
Tea and coffee
Producing one litre of bottled water simply requires a litre of water, and no energy. Yes, producing and distributing the water bottles does use water and energy, but the same goes for other beverages.
This means that bottled water is a more ecological choice than all other bottled options: beer, wine, milk, fruit juice or soft drinks. Most likely, drinking bottled water is an even better choice than drinking coffee or tea made with tap water - coffee and tea might weigh less than water, but they are transported over much larger distances.
The only undisputable better choice than bottled water is tap water. Forcing bottled water drinkers to drink tap water would help the environment – but switching from other beverages (none of them essential to human health) to bottled water would yield much more environmental profit.
It is unfair to solely blame water even though it also happens to be distributed via pipes
Environmental groups always have something to say about the huge (and growing) amounts of bottled water that are being sold, and the huge amount of energy that is needed to transport them. These figures might be accurate, but bottled water holds only a small share of the market for bottled drinks.
The energy needed to transport soft drinks and beer is far more impressive. The main problem here is not bottled water. The main problem is that most people don’t drink water, but prefer soft drinks, fruit juice, coffee, beer or energy drinks instead.
This message, however, is not so popular because most of us like to discuss the environmental problems of this planet over a couple of beers, or wines, or coffees.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a plea for everyone to start drinking bottled water instead of tap water. Drinking tap water should be encouraged. But people who prefer to drink bottled water should not be treated as pariahs, because they are making a more ecological choice than those of us who choose to consume other beverages.