UN Report reveals the shocking truth behind the global bottled water industry

The average Australian buys over 500 litres of bottled water a year, and pays two to four times as much for it as people in other countries! 

Bottled water is one of the most widely consumed products in the world with sales estimated at over 350 billion litres per year, according to a recent UN Report on the Global Bottled Water Industry, resulting in 25 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. A small proportion of this waste is recycled, while the rest ends up in landfill or escapes into the environment as plastic pollution where it causes untold harm to marine life, commercial fisheries and tourism industries globally.  But it hasn’t always been this way. As recently as 30 years ago, most people happily drank tap water and it was rare to see plastic water bottles in everyday life. So what happened to bring about the meteoric rise of bottled water?  

Water was first sold in glass bottles as a luxury beverage for special occasions as long ago as the 16th century. Its popularity grew in the 1960s with the new interest in personal fitness. The introduction of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in the 1970s boosted bottled water sales, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that multinational beverage companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo and Coca Cola saw the opportunity to diversify their product offerings to include water, at which point sales really took off. Bottled water was marketed as ‘healthy’ and ‘safe’ in comparison to allegedly ‘unsafe’ tap water, despite a lack of evidence backing up this assertion.  

Today bottled water is consumed all around the world but the rate of consumption varies greatly from country to country. No one will be surprised to learn that the four countries that consume the most are the USA, China, Indonesia and Canada. But who would have thought that Australia, with its excellent public water supplies, would come in 5th place, right after Canada?  It turns out Australians have the highest per capita consumption rate of bottled water in the world, behind Singapore. On average, each Australian bought 504 litres of water in 2021. And they pay far more for it than in other countries – twice as much as in the US and Europe and four times as much as in Asia and Africa. Think about it – Australians have access to top-quality tap water for free yet they choose to spend enormous sums of money on unnecessary bottled water! 

Top 50 countries in 2021 by their bottled water sales in US$ million. From: UN report on the Global Bottled Water Industry.

Although there is increasing awareness of the impacts of plastic water bottle waste on the environment, no one has yet invented a viable alternative to plastic, nor are they likely to soon, say the authors of the UN report.  But rather than focusing solely on finding a replacement for plastic, the authors suggest the solution is to look more broadly at the sources of the problem and ask why there is such a demand for bottled water in the first place. One key source is the misleading claims by bottled water producers who have managed to convince millions of people that the clean and safe water in their taps is somehow less healthy than their polluting, profit-making product. This perception needs to be challenged and faith needs to be restored in good old tap water if we are to stem the tide of plastic pollution that’s choking the planet. 

What can I do? Starting today, you can pledge to never buy a plastic bottle of water again. Why give your money to a multinational beverage company when there’s free water available everywhere you go? Drink glasses of water from the tap at home, slurp from a bubbler at the beach or in the park, and use a reusable bottle filled with tap water the rest of the time. You’ll be helping the planet and saving money at the same time.