Bottled water

Drop for drop, bottled water costs about 2000 times more than tap water, so what are we paying for?
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01 .The cost of bottled water


Australian consumers pay almost 2000 times more than the cost of tap water to drink from a bottle.

While a litre of tap water in Sydney costs only a fraction of a cent, you can pay upwards of $3.88 a litre for bottled water, with a large proportion of this cost coming from producing the plastic bottle, lid and label. And the costs over time can add up considerably.

If you hydrate yourself with two litres a day straight from the tap, you’ll pay about $1.50 a year. Drink the same amount from single-serve bottles, however, and you could be looking at $2800 or more a year.  

Yet all Australians have access to safe drinking water, and for most of us it’s readily available via the tap. Water trends from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2006 environment survey show 93% of Australian households were connected to mains/town water in March 2004. Almost all households (98%) in capital cities were connected, compared with 86% of households outside the capitals. 

Tap vs bottle 

Industry group the Australasian Bottled Water Institute (ABWI) estimates the industry is worth about $500 million a year. This equates to the sale of roughly 600 megalitres of water, 60% of which is sold in single-serve bottles. On a national level, about one in five households bought bottled water in 2004, compared with 16% in 2001. In fact, almost one in 10 households says it’s their main source of drinking water.

In the 10 years to 2004, the proportion of households buying bottled water increased from three per cent to 21%. Market researchers Canadean say world consumption of bottled water has doubled in the past decade, and predict bottled water will overtake carbonated drinks as the leading drink category by 2015. 

On tap 

Mains tap water in Australian cities is supplied by utilities, while in rural and regional areas it’s the responsibility of local council. Individual state health departments are responsible for regulating water quality monitoring. The water from your tap starts its journey from catchment zones, dams, rivers and even the ocean before flowing through filtration plants designed to remove contaminants and bring water in line with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. Set by the National Health and Medical Research Council, these guidelines define safe, good-quality water and how it is achieved and assured.

The poor taste of their mains water can lead some people to choose bottled water but, aside from the cost, there are also health and environmental arguments for tap water.

If the quality of tap water is a problem where you live - see State-by-state water quality - there are a number of water filters on the market that can help you save money in the long term. These are available with different filter cartridges that help remove impurities, which may help with taste. 

The fluoride factor 

Despite the ABWI listing hydration for “health-conscious living” as a key reason for people drinking bottled water, Australian tap water is equally as effective for hydration as bottled water. The Australian Dental Association recommends tap water as the primary choice of drink for everyone. The chair of its Oral Health Committee, Peter Alldritt, says “it’s the most hydrating beverage there is, free of sugar and acid, and [where] it contains fluoride, [it] reduces the risk of tooth decay”. 

“People who prefer bottled water are turning their backs on the benefits of water fluoridation,” he says. “They risk putting their dental health back to the 1960s, when tooth decay was widespread because there was no fluoride in the water.” The World Health Organization also holds the view that dental cavities can be prevented by maintaining a constant low level of fluoride in the oral cavity. Where fluoride is added to tap water in Australia, regulations mandate 0.6 – 1.1mg per litre. Although the Australia Food Standards Code permits bottlers to add the same amount to their bottled water, the ABWI says some people will choose bottled water over tap as a means of avoiding chemicals such as fluoride. 

Environmental costs

Although the ABWI boasts that all plastic bottles are made from recyclable material, the truth is less than half of these PET plastic bottles are actually recycled, with the remaining 60% going straight to landfill. In fact, US-based policy research organisation the Pacific Institute estimates twice as much water is used in producing the plastic bottle as there is in the bottle itself. This means every litre consumed actually represents three litres of water. Clean Up Australia adds that plastic bottles are among the 10 most common rubbish items picked up on Clean Up Australia Day, and actively encourages people to avoid bottled water and buy a reusable bottle. 

Ban the bottle?

Refill schemes are starting to take off around the country, with local councils paying closer attention to the provision of clean and regularly maintained public water fountains and taps. Some towns and organisations have taken it upon themselves to go a step further, banning bottled water completely. Bans are now also in place in the NSW town of Bundanoon and at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, the University of Canberra and the Southbank campus of the Victorian College of the Arts. Yarra Valley Water is enjoying great success with its Choose Tap app, as is Sydney Water with its café water program Tap, launched to help reverse the trend of paying too much for drinking water. Do Something!’s Go Tap campaign backs Manly Council’s water fountain project in Sydney and urges people to reduce single-bottle consumption on environmental grounds.


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The poor taste of their mains water is an issue for some Australians and may affect their perception of its quality.

In 2004, South Australians were least satisfied with the quality of their tap water for drinking, followed by Western Australians and Queenslanders. When it came to dissatisfaction for taste alone, WA households led the field, with 60% unhappy. According to SA Water’s 2011- 12 annual report, customer complaints for metropolitan drinking water in Adelaide have been on a slow but steady increase since 2007-08. South Australians were least reliant on mains/ town water as their main source of drinking water (60%) according to the 2004 ABS stats, with 26% relying instead on rainwater tanks and 13% on bought bottled water.

Safety check

Quality monitoring is carried out by state-based utilities and local council authorities. Not only do they consider the composition of the water, they also test for microorganisms that can cause gastroenteritis. 

Sydney’s water-testing protocol is endorsed by NSW Health and carried out six days a week, with results published online. 

Melbourne residents drink tap water that’s tested 50,000 times a year from more than 160 sites. 

Canberra’s tap water is tested at both the raw and treated stage, with any issues reported to ACT Health. There were no issues with microorganisms, according to the latest annual figures from the capital’s water utility. 

Tasmania’s Southern Water collects and monitors more than 8500 samples from Hobart and surrounding areas each year. This testing is conducted in conjunction with an automated monitoring system. 

South Australia has expert field operators who conduct thousands of individual tests annually, with the Australian Water Quality Centre handling monitoring. 

Perth’s testing saw 100% of samples collected in the 2011-12 financial year comply with E-coli requirements and health-related chemical guidelines set by the WA Department of Health. 

Darwin, too, boasted a perfect sample rate for E-coli in 2010-11, although the same can’t be said for remote areas in the Northern Territory. 

Brisbane’s water-testing measures for E-coli had a rolling compliance level of almost 99% in the 2011-12 financial year, Queensland Urban Utilities reports.

CHOICE verdict 

More expensive than milk, soft drink and even petrol, there’s no doubt bottled water has pitched itself as a premium product. In fact, you can buy more than 1000L of Sydney tap water for the same cost as a 600ml bottle of Mount Franklin water. But does bottled water trump tap in terms of quality? Probably not.

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