It's either a marketing triumph or scam, depending on who you ask. Bottled water is a product people are happy to pay top dollar for – despite most Australians having access to safe drinking tap water at a fraction of the price.
So why is bottled water so popular, when it costs more and is bad for the environment? It seems many people think bottled water is more "pure", seemingly drawn in by label images of natural springs and pristine mountains.
According to research conducted by Roy Morgan in 2015, 5.3 million Australians consumed bottled water in any given seven days – an increase on 2014, when only 4.9 million of us drank it in the same period.
Australians under the age of 50 are more likely to consume bottled water, with the beverage most popular with 25–34 year olds.
As a result, beverage companies raked in an estimated $700 million plus from sales of bottled water last year. But in a country that has some of the safest drinking water in the world – why is bottled water so popular?
Bottled water is no better at hydrating you than tap water, and it's not any healthier. Blind taste tests have also shown most people can't even tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. It's bad for the environment and it costs almost 2000 times the price of tap water.
Bottled water is often consumed away from home and not recycled, so it ends up dumped in the bin or ends up as litter.
Plenty of water utilities around Australia run "Choose tap" programs and spruik the benefits of tap water, but often the primary focus of these campaigns is on tap water being the best choice for your hip pocket and the environment.
Many Australians do drink tap water primarily (give or take the odd bottle of water on the run for the sake of convenience), according to research done by Sydney Water, the state-owned company that provides drinking water and other water services across Sydney. But the number of people who say they only drink bottled water 100% of the time is still high. In the Sydney area alone, Sydney Water reports that almost half a million people say they only drink bottled water.
Sydney Water's research showed that convenience, cost and environmental impact were all secondary considerations when it comes to choosing bottled water.
The key influencer for people's decision to choose bottled over tap was perception of the water quality. Many of the respondents found the imagery of clean and natural sources displayed on the bottled water packaging far more reassuring than that of dams, pipes and taps.
Some comments from this group included: "I'm more about the image of the brand than the quality of the water", "anything marketed is legit" or "a company couldn't legally sell something if it wasn't great quality".
Many respondents said they loved the idea that bottled water comes from a natural spring or a mountain in Switzerland. There was a perception that this water is clean, pure, high quality, and has been filled up directly at the source.
The water supplier Queensland Urban Utilities carried out a similar survey on bottled water use. Their key findings included:
- 35% of respondents prefer bottled water over tap water.
Of those that said they preferred bottled water:
- 47% said it was for the taste
- 38% believed bottled water is better quality
- 19% said that bottled water is better for their health
- 18% said they know what's in bottled water.
In Victoria, Yarra Valley Water also conducted research. Its study found that while 79% of those surveyed felt that tap water should be more accessible, of the 38% who said they didn't consume tap water when they were out and about due to accessibility, 24% said they would not choose tap water anyway – even if it was easily available.
So just how have people come to the conclusion that bottled water is safer than tap water?
Donna Lewis, acting engagement, education and partnerships manager at Sydney Water says, "Our research found that the perception of water quality is the primary driver for choosing bottled water over tap. The reasons for this association are numerous, but much of it comes down to clever marketing campaigns by bottled water distributors."
Lewis says that Australia's bottled water industry has successfully used marketing tactics to artificially manufacture consumer demand. "By telling consumers the safest drinking water comes from a bottle, beverage companies indirectly imply that tap water is unsafe and can't be trusted."
The good news is that the majority of us don't have to worry about getting sick from our drinking water. And it's widely agreed among experts that Australia has some of the best tap water in the world.
The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines specify that tap water "should contain no harmful concentrations of chemicals or pathogenic micro-organisms, and ideally it should be aesthetically pleasing in regard to appearance, taste and odour".
Water authorities use filtering, settling, coagulation and disinfecting to ensure the safety of drinking water. They also use sufficient disinfectant to stop the re-growth of microorganisms as the water travels through the pipe system to the tap.
Additionally, water utilities monitor the water quality 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and conduct thousands of tests each year to ensure quality and safety.
Tap water needs to meet more stringent quality criteria than bottled water.
According to Stuart Khan, an expert in drinking water quality, anyone in Australia who is under the impression that bottled water is safer than tap water is very much "mistaken".
Khan, who is an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of NSW, says that tap water and bottled water are regulated differently; tap water needs to meet much more stringent quality criteria and is monitored far more carefully than bottled water.
Bottled water is considered a packaged food and is regulated by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) via the Food Safety standards and is enforced by state- and territory-level food authorities.
Bottled water producers that are part of the Members of the Australasian Bottled Water Institute (ABWI) must also comply with their own industry code. According to the ABWI, the code is a set of standards for the safe processing of bottled water and requires testing once a year. However, joining the ABWI is voluntary.
According to Khan, while both products are likely to be safe in Australia, and both provide water using a risk management process, bottled water manufacturers (unlike the water utilities) are generally likely to have less control over the catchment where they source their water.
He says that while bottled water companies can do a site survey on their land and make an assessment that it's safe, they can't prevent activities offsite but nearby. "This is a commercial enterprise so they are looking for somewhere that is clean and pristine, they can't put in the sort of large scale catchment activities that a larger water utility can."
As for bottled water being completely pristine, Dr Peter Cox, principal advisor on public health at Sydney Water, says that even if you take the cleanest water out of a spring, microorganisms will change the water quality. "People like to believe bottled water is pure, straight from nature, with no human intervention, but it has to be treated."
In mid-March the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a review into the potential health problems that may arise from microplastics in bottled drinking water. This announcement came after the results of a study conducted by nonprofit US-based organisation Orb Media revealed that a single bottle of water can hold dozens or possibly even thousands of microscopic plastic particles.
The study found plastic in 93% of the samples analysed that were from 250 bottles of water in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Thailand and the United States and were contaminated with plastic including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
The research found that the microplastic in the water was coming from processes to do with bottling or from the cap itself.
While water utilities in Australia are upfront about where their tap water is sourced from, when it comes to bottled water things are murkier.
We contacted the manufacturers of some of Australia's highest-selling spring water brands to ask where their water was sourced.
Coca Cola Amatil – who produce Mount Franklin and Pump – responded that all of its water brands are sourced locally within each state from springs that are as close as possible to the bottling facilities. However, they said they're unable to disclose the actual addresses, citing privacy.
A spokesperson from Asahi, which own the brands Frantelle and Cool Ridge, says that their product is sourced "locally" but provide little more information.
A spokesperson from Coles says they don't disclose the location of the spring water source on the label of the bottles, but that they work with two Australian suppliers across five sites in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and WA to source the water. However, the specific locations were not supplied.
Nestle's best-selling bottled water brand in the USA – Poland Spring – is "a colossal fraud" according to a class-action lawsuit filed this August. The lawsuit alleges that instead of spring water, the brand has been selling common groundwater to customers instead.
According to the lawsuit, unknown to the general public, one or more wells at each of Nestle Waters' six largest volume groundwater collection sites in Maine – which recently have collectively supplied up to 99% of the water in Poland Spring Water products – are near a present or former human waste dump, refuse pit, landfill, ash pile, salt mound, farm where pesticides were previously used, fish hatchery or toxic petroleum dump site.
While there are no concerns that the water is contaminated, the lawsuit maintains the company's claims are misleading because the water comes from wells in low-lying populated areas near potential sources of contamination, while consumers expect 'spring water' to come from a naturally occurring spring and pay premium prices as a result.
A statement from Nestle says that the claims made in the lawsuit are without merit and that the product meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations defining spring water.
While there've been few issues safety-wise in Australia from the tap or the bottle, people who choose bottled water under the impression that it's more trusted may be surprised by what we found with one local bottled water brand.
Australian Artesian Water claims its bottled water is sourced from the great artesian basin in northern NSW and is "full of mineral salts that are quickly absorbed by your body, replenishing and cleansing". While not a large brand, it is available at a number of retailers in Sydney at the time of publishing.
CHOICE received a tip-off that the product inside the bottle may not be what's claimed on the label. We sent two samples of the product to the National Measurement Institute to see if the contents of the bottle matched the typical analysis provided on the label.
What we discovered from the testing is that the water in the bottle did not match the label at all. We then asked an external expert to take a look at the results and he confirmed that the water in the bottle "couldn't be more different" to the type of water claimed on the label – it's "not even close".
He said that the "typical analysis" provided on the label not only bears no resemblance to the water inside but that the water inside appears to have been treated by reverse osmosis, which has removed almost all of the ionic constituents. In short, this means it's impossible to know where the water was originally sourced.
While our expert confirmed that the water was not a health risk, he says that the claimed contents are misleading and that the purported benefits of the mineral contents that are being claimed just don't apply to the actual water inside the bottle.
In fact, for all the claims of minerals and salts made by Australian Artesian Water, the plain old Sydney tap water we had tested along with it actually contained more minerals than the bottled water brand!
We also spotted another unusual bottled water brand on sale at a major Sydney Hospital, of all places.
Zouki Breathe oxygen-infused water was being advertised in the foyer café of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital with a large poster proclaiming benefits such as "energy levels", "vitality", "endurance", "mental focus" and "recovery". The product itself was on sale inside the nearby cafe.
The water, which claims to be directly sourced from a spring in Ballarat and featuring one of the "highest concentration levels of oxygen in any spring water in Australia", costs $3.50 for a 575ml bottle. So is oxygen-infused water any better than regular water?
Our drinking expert Stuart Khan is blunt. "Oxygen water is a rubbish idea." He explains that once you extract water from underground, the dissolved oxygen concentrations quickly establish a balance with atmospheric levels.
In fact, he adds that tap water (especially if it has been chlorine disinfected) is just as as highly oxygenated as any groundwater could be.
And when it comes to water quality? Khan says if a spring water claims to be "highly oxygenated", this suggests it's been sourced from close to the surface, rather than from a deep and confined aquifer – which would mean the water is actually more vulnerable to contamination.
If you're concerned about the contents of your bottled water or something doesn't seem right you can contact the manufacturer or the health authorities in your state.
If your tap water looks, smells or tastes strange, or if your clothing and plumbing (such as sinks and toilets) become stained, here are some suggestions for what to do next.
- Ask your neighbours if they have similar issues to try to work out if it's a general supply problem or one caused by your home's plumbing.
- Talk to your water supplier about your concerns. If you've recognised a potential problem, tell them – it may help them assess and solve the problem more quickly. Ask them for the latest analytical results of your water supply and the corresponding Drinking Water Guidelines recommendations. If you still have doubts, get a water sample analysed.
- Your supplier may analyse a sample free of charge, especially if there's a health concern.
- Your water supplier may be able to solve some aesthetic problems fairly easily by flushing the mains, while other problems may require more extensive cleaning or repair of the distribution system in your area, or work on your home's plumbing.
- If you've suffered damage (for example, rust-spotted clothes after a wash), you may be able to negotiate compensation from your supplier.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.