Don’t be fooled by fake news: 5 facts consumers should know about bottled water and the drought

bottled water industryUnderstandably, droughts have a major impact on a nation’s emotional as well as social, economic and political well-being. Equip yourself with the facts, rather than rely on urban legend or fake news. We asked environmental advisor, speaker and author, Dr Anthony Turton, five questions about the bottled water industry and the drought in the Western Cape, and then got South African National Bottled Water Association chairman, John Weaver, to add context from the industry’s point-of-view.

  1. Do you believe the bottled water industry is negatively impacting on water available for reticulation?

    Dr Turton: No. The literature on water scarcity tells us that when problems become acute, the impact is not evenly distributed in society and underlying tensions are amplified or magnified. The drought in the Western Cape is such a case, where the public is increasingly alarmed at plastic bottles, so they deflect that anger towards the bottled water industry. In reality, however, the water used for bottling is small compared to total volumes in a given system, and given the relatively high value of bottled water, there is an incentive not to waste it.

    John Weaver: No, the activities of SANBWA members in the Western Cape – located in Franschhoek, Paarl and Ceres– are not exacerbating the drought in the province.

    The reasons for this are threefold:

    • The water sources of SANBWA members nationwide (90% of which are bottled from underground sources, that is, groundwater as opposed to surface water) must be audited to ensure long-term sustainability prior to membership being granted. All SANBWA members in the Western Cape bottle from groundwater sources.
    • Groundwater is strongly buffered against drought influence. Recharge, or aquifer renewal, is replenished at between 5% and 20% a year depending on the underlying geology and topography.
    • No water from any of these groundwater sources would naturally enter the municipal system via rivers and dams. Bottled water originates from sources licenced to private entities by the Department of Water & Sanitation specifically for the use of the water for commercial purposes (bottling water). The volumes extracted are monitored against the licensed limit.

    There are other systems that could be exacerbating the drought. These could include:

    • Shop-floor systems that use a combination of filters and/or ozone to purify tap water, which is then packaged in shop-branded bottles (bottled water) or re-filled into consumers’ containers (drinking water).
    • Small retail outlets using a combination of filters and/or ozone to purify tap water, which is then packaged in shop-branded bottles (bottled water) or re-filled into consumers’ containers (drinking water).
    • Counter-top filtration units used by restaurants, caterers and hotels, and linked to taps; the water is bottled in re-usable glass bottles and often closed with a Grolsch-type cap.
    • Bottling companies or individuals are starting up in response to the drought but do not adhere to South Africa’s legislation governing the bottled water industry. For example, they could be bottling from unlicensed, unprotected and unsustainable sources.

    If the taps run dry, consumers can ensure source sustainability, quality and hygiene by purchasing water that features the SANBWA logo. Environmental surveys to ensure source sustainability, the construction of a hygienic bottling facility etc cost far more than people factor into the price. Therefore, if the bottled product is cheap, chances are the source is not what it is claimed to be, or the production facilities are not what they should be.

  2. What is the bottled water industry’s role during the drought?

    Dr Turton: When Day Zero arrives, bottled water will be one of the vital ways of delivering water to distressed individuals.

    John Weaver: The bottled water industry exists as a healthy beverage alternative. It is, in addition, too small industry to be the long-term solution to drought. Compared to the total beverage market (including alcoholic) it is tiny– just 3.8% in 2016. Its total size nationally, not just in the Western Cape, for 2016 was 502-million litres. This annual figure is less than the 520-million litres daily target consumption for the City of Cape Town.

    Members have independent plans to donate and provide water at cost when possible. This includes donations to Water Shortage South Africa and Gift of the Givers, SAPS offices, Western Cape Disaster Management and Blood Bank stores, firefighting teams when they are out on call, and vulnerable communities such as the aged and the disabled.

  3. Do you believe bottled water bottlers should be forced by Government to bottle water for distribution or that Government should annex/attach bottled water companies?

    Dr Turton: The fundamental driver of the current Cape Town crisis is about the inability of government to provide the infrastructure needed to get water to individuals and businesses. It’s a blatant failure of the nationalisation of water that occurred under the 1998 National Water Act. In contrast to this, the bottled water industry is in private hands, and it is not in distress. The logic used to conclude that because a nationalised resource is failing, therefore we need to nationalise the remaining portion of that resource that is still functional, is nothing short of collective suicide.

    John Weaver: No, Government should not get heavy-handed with the bottled water bottlers. Of concern is the misconception that bottling water is an inexpensive business, and that bottlers should easily be able to slash prices. In addition to the licensing fee, there is the considerable cost of ensuring sustainability of the source as well as the bottling, packaging and distribution. This includes the investment in plant and equipment, and compliance with health and safety regulations as well as packaging and labelling legislation.  Another irrational assumption is that the industry can simply increase production to supply a spike in demand. The fact is that bottlers’ licences strictly regulate the volume they may extract for bottling.

    That said, the Government could bring down the cost of bottled water during this time and supply ensured if it were to allow for an emergency water category that, for example, allowed bottlers to omit regular costly labels or facilitated alternative methods of bottling, such as a soft drink or beer company bottling their treated water for emergency handouts only. Another major positive step would be for Government to reconsider proposed legislation, published in the Government Gazette Volume 631 Number 41381 on January 12 2018, whereby the Department of Water & Sanitation requires bottlers to reduce their water extraction by 40%, which would make it nearly impossible to keep up with the demand.

  4. What is the biggest behavioural change South Africans should make to their daily lives?

    Dr Turton: South Africans need to hold elected officials accountable and insist that only technically competent people are placed in charge of water infrastructure management. They need to demand the de-politicisation of water.

    John Weaver: I like Dr Turton’s answer but there also have to be behavioural changes. When the rains come and our dams are full, we must not go back to our wasteful ways and flush just because there’s an abundance of water, or take 10-minute showers. Sustainable water use and PET recycling, just like switching off the light when you leave a room, must become second nature.

  5. What will bottled water’s role be post drought?

    Dr Turton: Droughts come and go. The current Cape Town crisis is not about drought. It’s about a failure by the state to adequately provide bulk infrastructure needed to buffer the economy from the natural variability of our climate regime. Bottled water will play a vital role in the height of the crisis, and will continue to play an important role in post-crisis reconstruction. The challenge for the industry is how to manage the waste arising from discarded bottles.

    John Weaver: Bottled water is legislated as a food product in South Africa and competes against other packaged beverages found on the retailer’s shelf, not against tap water. It exists to give consumers a choice, and is the healthiest packaged beverage option for societies plagued by diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

    Bottled water also is the best packaged beverage option for the environment; it has the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages — one that can be reduced by 25% if consumers were to simply recycle the bottle. Consumers must acknowledge that they are also responsible for waste and its recycling. SANBWA urges consumers to recycle as well as re-use plastic water bottles (provided they are washed regularly with soap and hot water).

    That said, SANBWA’s environmental protocols not only address measures to ensure source sustainability and protection, water usage minimisation, energy efficiency, solid waste minimisation, they demand members support post-consumer recycling initiatives even if the amount of plastic it utilises is small compared to the total amount of PET used in South Africa.

    Members, therefore, purchase bottles from PET bottle suppliers which contribute to the PETCO recycling levy. They also follow ‘design for recycling’ principles to ensure that all their packaging components are recyclable. The post-consumer PET recycling rates in 2016 were above 55% (according to PETCO), an impressive figure.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,