The rapid and continuing growth of the $270 billion bottled water industry is undermining international development goals to provide universal access to safe drinking water, according to a new report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, a think tank.
The bottled water industry grew by 73% between 2010 and 2020 and is set to double again to $500 billion by 2030, according to the report released Thursday, which is based on an analysis of literature and data from 109 countries. It comes out the week before World Water Day — March 22 — and the convening of a conference on water in New York City.
The U.N. in 2015 adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is to provide universal access to safe drinking water. As of 2020, it estimated that 2 billion people across the globe still lacked safely managed drinking water.
The authors find that the growth of the bottled water industry is slowing progress to goals by “distracting from development efforts and redirecting attention to a less reliable and less affordable option.” Part of this is a misallocation of resources. Providing safe water to the roughly 2 billion people without it would require an annual investment of $114 billion, the report says, or less than half of what’s now spent every year on bottled water.
Zeineb Bouhlel, the lead author, said in a statement that companies selling water also use marketing to undermine faith in pubic systems. “Even if in certain countries piped water is or can be of good quality, restoring public trust in tap water is likely to require substantial marketing and advocacy efforts.”
While it is true that some municipal systems’ water is unsafe — largely due to underinvestment in infrastructure — bottled water quality varies greatly in content between brands and even within the same brand in different countries. Bottled water is also subject to less stringent quality testing than public water and therefore not as safe as the public perceives it to be, the report says. Worse, the industry is not transparent in many places about how much water it is taking from the public or local water systems.
Nestlé Waters, a division of Nestlé, extracts 3 million liters a day from Florida springs, taking 4.1 liters to produce a 1-liter bottle of water for sale, the researchers found.
The plastic bottles for packaging water have turned into a major waste problem. The industry produced about 600 billion plastic bottles in 2021 alone, or about 25 million tons of plastic waste, at least some of which ends up in streams and oceans and contributes to the death of wildlife and the spread of microplastics.
A separate study published in Frontiers in Sustainability this week found that with machine learning, optical sorters at recycling centers could learn to sort biodegradable plastics from regular plastics, an important step if plastic bottles are eventually to be replaced with a more sustainable option.
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.