With one of the most stringent governances of tap water in the world, you would think developing a booming bottled water market in Australia is akin to selling ice to Eskimos.
- Over 250 guidelines govern Australian tap water
- The bottled water industry generates more than $700 million a year
- Blind testing has shown many people can’t tell the difference between bottle and tap
But despite publicity about plastic waste, effective marketing is not the only force steering consumers to a bottle.
Age, gender, culture, and lack of trust in water utilities all contribute.
Sydney Water last year commissioned research to understand the decline in trust of tap water, and confirmed bottled water marketing had an influence.
Western Sydney University’s Professor Gay Hawkins, who worked on the project, said the bottled water companies promoted purity.
“Even though the bottled water markets don’t explicitly criticize tap water, they undermine it by creating a new set of values around water in bottles,” she said.
The chief executive of the Australian Beverages Council, Geoff Parker, said strong labelling and consumer laws ensure what appears on labels is true, particularly with respect to spring water claims.
He said the industry — which now generates over $700 million annually — had expanded in the past five years largely due to consumers’ preference for convenience, taste and rising health consciousness.
A Queensland Urban Utilities survey found 35 per cent of people preferred bottled water over tap water, while 29 per cent thought it was better for them than tap water.
Blind testing in South Australia revealed many people cannot tell the difference without packaging.
What we take for granted
Australia’s governance of tap water is extremely strict and bottled water is not subject to the same checks.
Water utilities follow about 250 rigorous guidelines, developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which cover everything from metals to microbiology.
Adam Lovell, the executive director of peak body Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), said when the World Health Organisation set up guidelines, it used Australia as a model.
“Australia is a world leader in that respect,” he said.
Most people have only a basic understanding of water services, Mr Lovell added.
Professor Hawkins thinks many take the system for granted.
“They don’t understand it and they certainly wouldn’t take it for granted if they knew what it was like to live in a country where bad governance means there is unsafe water.”
A national report monitoring outcomes shows nearly 100 per cent compliance.
“You won’t see that in many other countries, believe me,” Mr Lovell said.
Mr Parker believes bottled water is not an alternative to tap water, but to all other packaged beverages — and with Australia’s expanding waistlines that alternative is important.
“Water is also a great choice for people who want fast and easy hydration without worrying about calories, and bottled water provides those benefits away from home,” he said.
Culture, age and gender
According to a WSAA survey, 60 per cent of people drink tap water and under 40s are far more likely to drink bottled water.
Women represent a higher proportion of bottled water drinkers. Professor Hawkins said the industry was built up by initially targeting fitness-conscious females, but there are also fitness arguments about the need to be “constantly sipping”.
Sydney Water focus groups also revealed Mandarin-speaking communities demonstrate “profound cultural resistance” to drinking from the tap.
Professor Hawkins said there was an “absolute ingrained habit” to boil drinking water, but also different cultural meanings around drinking.
“That community liked to drink tea more than water,” she said.
“You can’t say everyone has the same relationship to water utilities.”
The waste problem
According to the National Waste Report (2016), Australia produces about 64 mega tonnes of waste a year, or 2,705 kilograms per capita.
About 58 per cent of it was recycled and a comparison by Planet Ark suggests Australia’s recycling rate is relatively on par with northern European countries.
The ABC’s War on Waste this year highlighted the impact of single-use plastics, with more than 666,000 tonnes of plastic waste produced by Australian households every year.
Mr Parker said bottled water has one of the lowest environmental footprints of any commercial beverage and the industry is taking steps to tackle the waste problem posed by plastic bottles.
“Australian bottlers lead the way in new technologies designed to minimise the environmental impact of their product, including light weighting of plastics used, world leading water use ratios, blow fill bottling technology,” he said.
The industry has also been supporting governments that want to introduce container-deposit schemes.
Professor Hawkins believes the waste problem does sway some consumers, but water bodies need to encourage people to celebrate being lucky enough to live in a country where good governance leads to a safe supply.
“The challenge is to manage it carefully so it’s protected and distributed fairly,” Professor Hawkins said.
“Water utilities do that in the name of population health, economic growth and environmental sustainability.
“They need to promote that.”
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