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Bottled water – good for whom exactly?

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Tap water, well-traveled water and the TerraPass water bottle, free with every Dorm TerraPass

A Heineken TV commercial shown here in the UK 20 years ago featured an elocution teacher instructing his young pupil to pronounce the phrase, “The water in Majorca don’t taste like what it oughta” (video here).

I was reminded of this recently when I read about the furore surrounding the revelations that Aquafina water comes straight from the tap. PepsiCo has announced that it will now be relabeling its bottles to make this a little clearer. I don’t want to burst too many bubbles in one blog post, but it’s my duty to inform you that Dasani (Coca-Cola’s bottled water brand) is similarly sourced. Its launch in the UK descended into farce when it was revealed that only a process of “reverse osmosis” and the addition of a few minerals stood between a bottle of Dasani and London’s finest tap water.

Of course, not all bottled water comes from the same faucet that supplies London’s bathrooms. Stick your thirsty head into the finest Soho bars (on either side of the Atlantic) and you’ll find bottled water variously sourced from the French Alps, Milan, Fiji and many other locations scattered across the world. And it’s tasty too. But is it really so much better for us than the stuff that comes out of the tap? And can you tell the difference?

We’ll set up the TerraPass blind taste test another day (but if you’d like to stage your own and send us the results, there’s a neat TerraPass water bottle in it for you). Let’s say for the sake of argument that the bottled water does taste better. Is it so much better that it justifies the environmental costs of capture, bottling distribution and refrigeration? Oh, and let’s not forget disposal. Recent estimates suggest that as little as 23% of plastic soda bottles make it into the recycling bin.

The bottled water industry, no doubt buoyed by the variety of flavors and colors it now markets, has grown around 10% each year since 2000 (source: Zenith International). Four billion gallons of plastic and glass-sealed H2O were consumed by Americans last year. A recent report from the Earth Policy Institute estimated that 1.5 million barrels of oil were used to make those bottles – and that’s before transportation.

The news that tap water is safe, clean and just as good for you as the stuff in bottles doesn’t seem especially revelatory to me. But I’ve still bought the bottled water, and I’m a total sucker for the idea that the colored stuff with vitamins in it is good for me. Stop press! It’s all good for us, and (in both the USA and the UK) we’re lucky enough to be in a country where the tap water is safe, high quality and very very cheap.

The International Bottled Water Association took out full page adverts (pdf) in major newspapers last week to extol the virtues of — well, of course — bottled water. It declares that “the drink in everyone’s purse, backpack and lunchbox should be water.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ll go a step further…for general safety and to prevent everything else in the bag getting wet, it should be kept in a bottle. A sturdy, reusable bottle that gets filled up at the faucet, drinking fountain or water machine.

The water in my bottle tastes exactly like it oughta. Fresh, clean and costs nothing. My bottle’s a fancy blue one that says TerraPass on it. What’s yours?

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