Thursday, November 22, 2007


Imagine a world in which public transport was almost free, in which it produced almost no carbon emissions or other environmental nasties, and in which it didn't rely heavily on oil and so was not substantially contributing to a society vulnerable to the dangers of peak oil. However, in this world, running a car still sets you back hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, still produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide and is still dependent upon cheap oil. The disparity between them is so great that one trip in a car costs about as much as using public transport regularly (multiple times a day) for a year. Furthermore, imagine that this idyllic public transport system was directly connected to every house and building in the city, so that using it was only ever metres away. Sounds nice?

Imagine your shock to find that in this world private car use continues to grow by 10% each year and that car manufacturers are making huge profits. How can this industry possibly be flourishing? Perhaps they have run scare campaigns spreading misinformation about the dangers of public transport (when in fact, it poses the same or fewer dangers than regular use of a private automobile). Perhaps they have successfully branded car use with a variety of attractive identities - healthy, natural, convenient - despite the actual facts about the situation.

I imagine you might be worried. Not only are your fellow citizens being duped out of their money and helping to unnecessarily destroy the environment, but if more and more people switch to their own (far more expensive, far more polluting, far more oil-dependent) car, the government will have less reason to maintain the excellent public transport system at its present standard. What of those who can't afford a car and rely on the public system?

Oh, and imagine that in this world, using public transport actually improved your teeth.

Now stop imagining, because in Sydney, this is world in which we live. Except rather than transport, I'm talking about drinking water.

Bottled water makes no sense. Tap water is just as safe (if not safer), comes in at about 1/2400th of the price, uses very little energy and produces very little pollution. Bottled water costs about as much for a bottle as you spend on drinking tap water for a year: one tonne of tap water costs about $1.20, while the same amount of bottled water costs around $3,000. Water is heavy (and thus energy-intensive) to transport (and refrigerate) in bottles, compared with Sydney's tap water, which is largely gravity-fed, or occasionally pumped, through an amazing pipe system that connects to almost every building in the city. The bottles themselves are energy-intensive to produce (being plastic, an oil-based synthetic product), and in Australia only about one third are recycled (with the exception of South Australia, whose enlightened policies manage to get a recycling rate around 70%), while the rest make their way into landfill, where they take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. The production of a plastic bottle ironically uses about seven times more water than will ever be able to fit into it, and results in about one hundred times more carbon emissions than the production of a glass bottle.

And all this is entirely unnecessary, yet sales of bottled water continue their astonishing growth (180 billion litres sold last year and growing at 10% p.a.): a testimony to the victory of consumerism over common sense.

A friend of mine has done the logical thing and started a Facebook 'cause': Reject Plastic Drink Bottles.

Having been cynical about The Daily Telegraph in my previous post, I applaud them for running a story the SMH seems to have missed on this topic.

This site summarises the pros of tap water and the cons of bottled water, encouraging us to "think global, drink local".


Dave Barrie said...

Brilliant! I knew bottled water was causing problems but didn't realise just how ludicrous the whole thing was until I saw the numbers.

Drew said...

successfully branded ... healthy, natural, convenient

Add to this social success, status and privilege.

Just think of all those pink-topped bottles at engage...

nico said...

thanks for another great post byron! i think i'm going to be sending a few bottled messages the way of coca-cola amatil...

Moffitt the Prophet said...

did you see the story about bottled water on ABC news last night?

Manly Council will vote next month on banning bottled water from Council functions etc.

Michael Canaris said...

Apart from anything else, I prefer the flavour of tap water over most bottled waters.

One of Freedom said...

Glad to see this topic is still resonating with your Byron. I'll have to post my paper on my blog.

Joshua said...

Did you see this report in today's SMH (3/12/07)

byron smith said...

Joshua - I hadn't seen it (though have now - thanks!). What it didn't say was whether the overall use of plastic bottles in Australia has risen or fallen. I suspect the former. While it may be good for our collective health to drink less sugar, it is the level of plastic we use that concerns me more at the moment.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: How water became the ultimate consumer product.

byron smith said...

Here's an overview of the global bottled water industry presented to a bottled water industry conference.

The key stat is that global bottled water consumption in 2011 (from 90 countries, which presumably cover most of the global population) was 261.8 billion litres, up from 192.8 billion in 2006. In other words, it is growing at 6.3% per year.

The countries with the fastest rates of growth are Indonesia, China and India, all with growth rates over 15% p.a.. Brazil is growing at more than 11%. This analysis projects continued growth of more than 5% p.a. for the next decade. At 5% p.a. this means global consumption will double every 14 years (approx).

Now, as for carbon footprint:
Here is an industry-sourced study estimating that a typical US 500 ml bottle has a carbon footprint of 83g CO2e, while a typical EU 1.5L bottle has a footprint of 163g CO2e (with large error bars in each case).
This does not include the costs associated with recycling or landfill. By far the largest uncertainties and variations occur in attempting to estimate emissions associated with transport, which they calculate as contributing roughly 40% of the total footprint (on average). So bottled water that come from much further away will be significantly higher than this.

Putting this together in a very crude way (since these figures are for PET bottles, rather than glass bottles, which are considerably higher and since something like 1/3 of bottled water comes in considerably larger plastic containers, which have a smaller footprint per volume - I'm just going to assume these cancel out and also going to just take the average of the two figures I mentioned, or 123gCO2e/L), then my very rough ballpark estimate for the carbon footprint of the global bottled water industry would be:

261.8 billion x 0.123 kg = approx 32 million tonnes CO2e annually (and rising by more than 5% per year).

To bring these numbers down into everyday use. If each 500ml bottle has roughly 83g of CO2e, then if you drink a couple of bottles a week, then over a year, 100 bottles would contribute 8.3kg towards your carbon footprint. The average Australian has a carbon footprint of more than 20tCO2e, so on almost any reckoning, this is a relatively tiny fraction of one's carbon footprint.

I am staunchly opposed to the culture of drinking bottled water, but this is primarily for issues of social justice (making bottled water the norm commercialises a critical foundation of life, and undermines political capital required to create and maintain a safe and clean supply of tap water, which can be achieved for a tiny fraction of the energy and cost associated with bottling water, making this perhaps the example par excellence where a centralised government monopoly on the provision of clean drinking water is thousands of times more efficient than private enterprise seeking to maximise profit by the creation of unnecessary desires). The carbon footprint of bottled water is a relatively minor consideration in my book.