What’s In Your Bottle?

As the weather starts to heat up we will all be reaching to quench our thirst, but how should we do it? One glance around the library suggests that bottled water is a popular choice, with bottles seeming to sit on almost every desk. The nation as a whole appears to agree: the amount of packaged water we consume in the UK has increased from 30 million litres in 1980 to over 2 billion litres last year. But at the average price of £1 a litre (that’s the same price as petrol), what’s so good about it?

One of the most common ideas, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is that bottled water is thought to be more ‘pure’, or in some way ‘healthier’, than water from the tap, and a lot of aggressive marketing by bottled water companies has certainly always implied this. Recall amicable mop-head ‘Jimmy’ from the latest Volvic ad, who claims to feel, “great, alert and active,” after drinking the stuff for 14 days.

If there is no real health benefit to drinking bottled water, then perhaps it tastes better? Many claim it does, but independent blind taste tests often provide inconclusive results, showing no overall preference for the bottle or tap. I decided to do my own experiment and got 30 volunteers to try unlabeled glasses of Nottingham tap water and a popular packaged brand available in the SU shop. Unsurprisingly, 17 of the volunteers actually claimed a preference for the tap water and in many cases there isn’t actually a difference – 10% of the UK bottled water industry is in fact sourced directly from ‘municipal sources’, or a tap! One of these is ‘Dasani’, a brand owned by Coca-Cola, which sources its water from the mains supply at its factory in Kent. It is essentially a bottle of Coca-Cola without the coke syrup, for the same price. This was famously withdrawn a couple of years ago due to the presence of bromide, only introduced during the bottling process!

When packaged, priced and put on a shelf, however, water seems to somehow become more attractive. A study published last year at Stanford in Caltech may help to illuminate this: subjects were given several glasses of the same wine, but labelled with different price tags. Not only did the participants claim to prefer the wine they believed to be more expensive, but MRI brain imaging also showed that more pleasure was experienced whilst drinking it. I guess money can buy you happiness, but at what cost?

1.5 million barrels of oil were needed to make the plastic water bottles the USA alone consumed in 2006 – that’s enough to power our city of Nottingham for an entire year! The main concern, however, is the plastic waste once the bottle is discarded – research suggests that less than 20% of plastic bottles are re-cycled, with most ending up in landfills or the ocean. They are, for example, one of the biggest components of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, an area of ocean the size of Texas littered with more plastic than life.

On campus, the ‘meal deal’ offer in the SU shop allows you to buy a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a drink (including bottled water) for £2.89. The sandwich itself, however, is often priced at £2.89 anyway, so the crisps and drink are effectively free. If you wanted to have this same lunch, but bring your own drink from home, reusing and re-cycling a bottle, you would have to pay £3.29 for the privilege. This ‘meal deal’ is a good student-friendly idea if you want a Coke or Pepsi, but it also encourages us to be wasteful and buy a brand new bottle even if we don’t need or want it.
With more emphasis than ever on sustainable green living, perhaps something we literally have ‘on tap’ around campus shouldn’t be encouraged to be taken off a shelf. We are lucky to have such immaculately maintained gardens to enjoy in the brief summer Nottingham grants us, but off campus, in the wider world, it’s a different story – thinking before reaching out for plastic could make a small difference to a truly global problem.

Terry Black


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