• Teja Hudson

Stop Buying Bottled Water: Top 5 Quick Actions for Big Impact #5

This series of posts is covering the five quickest things you can do for your business to make the biggest impact and the biggest steps towards that magic number: zero. If you want your business to be more sustainable but don't know where to start, read on!

#5 - Stop Buying Bottled Water

The UK has some of the best drinking water in the world, and here in Scotland we are especially fortunate that our tap water tastes better than most premuim bottled waters. Numerous comparisons have shown that bottled water is not safer, nor better quality, nor better tasting, nor more regulated than UK tap water (or any good water supply in a developed nation).

Yet the UK buys 8 billion bottles of water per year, at 500 - 1,000 times the price of tap water. Globally, that adds up to a million plastic bottles per minute and is estimated to rise to half a trillion bottles a year in 2020. Currently the UK fails to recycle 16 million plastic bottles per day. That's a LOT of plastic.

The manufacture of each bottle releases approximately 160g of carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere - the equivalent of driving about 2km in a car and up to 2,000 times the footprint of tap water. By 2020 this will be the global equivalent of about 400 million barrels of oil per year - enough to supply the entire USA's oil needs for nearly 3 weeks.

Furthermore, each bottle uses twice as much water again in the manufacturing process, so each litre of bottled water actually represents three litres in total.

Of course, bottled water is very necessary in regions where there is poor water quality, but in a developed country with an excellent water supply, it's one of the most pointlessly wasteful things you can do. Yet again, we have been utterly conned into buying something we do not actually need with fancy marketing campaigns and a whole lot of spin.

Bottled water manufacturers would have us believe that they are providing a natural, healthy alternative to sugary juices and soft drinks. And drinking water is indeed a natural and healthy alternative to those things. But we shouldn't need to buy what flows freely from the tap.

I love the water here in Scotland, but I have to admit that I'm rather particular about the taste of my water and do not always like the tap water everywhere I go. Fortunately, there are many filtering options available that improve taste and remove chemicals like chlorine or fluoride at a fraction of the environmental cost (and monetary price) of buying bottled water.

So What Are The Alternatives?

Like all things zero waste, we're going to focus on reusable and refillable.

In the Workplace:

Consult with staff and encourage them to drink tap water instead. If taste or temperature is a problem, you can use water filters (filter jugs, tap attachments or bottle-free water coolers) and/or keep refillable bottles in the fridge. You can also refill the large water cooler bottles with tap water so you and your staff feel like you're still getting the same experience. You might need to work with them to get the right option and the taste they like.

If you're still having trouble convincing staff that they won't notice a difference, you can hold a blind tasting with them - most people can't tell the difference between bottled water and filtered tap water when they're not labelled!

Out and About:

Reusable water bottles are the thing here, especially if they're made of glass or steel. You can get insulated steel ones that will hold temperature (hot or cold) for many hours or non-insulated bottles that will keep contents closer to room temperature. There are even steel or glass water bottles with built in filters available, if you're worried about the hygiene, quality and/or taste of the water you get while on-the-go.

Licensed premises in England, Scotland and Wales must legally provide free drinking water to their customers (although they are allowed to charge for use of a cup, which is why you've got your bottle). Schools must also provide free drinking water to pupils, and all workplaces must provide it to staff. Additionally, many high street businesses are very happy to fill your bottle; Costa and Premier Inn (both owned by Whitbread) have publically pledged to provide free refills to customers and passers-by across all their branches...so never be too embarrassed to ask!

To make it even easier, there is also an app called Refill that will guide you and your staff to over 14,000 refill stations - both public fountains and businesses who are willing to refill - and they're constantly adding more. Refill are also partnering with councils and big business to increase the number of public fountains and refill infrastructure across the UK.

Offering Accommodation:

Instead of offering bottled water to your guests, you can provide filter jugs and/or information and signage about the quality and drinkability of the tap water, encouraging them to try it - they might not realise it's drinkable, especially if they come from a country that does not have as reliable a water supply. You might also consider supplying (robust) reusable water bottles for your guests to use while they stay, and information about the Refill App to help them find places to refill.

If You Absolutely MUST Buy a Bottle Of Water:

It happens sometimes; despite your best efforts you end up stuck somewhere, you don't have a refillable water bottle with you, there's no one to ask for free water and you're dying of thirst...you have to buy something and water is the best option. So how do you minimise the impact?

Look, I'm not here to judge anyone. Tiny actions make a huge difference only when they add up over time, so I'm much more interested in helping businesses to make systemic and general behaviour change than worrying about isolated incidents. Don't panic, we're all human and, really, one bottle here or there is not going to destroy the world.

Having said that, there are a few ways you can reduce the impact of your isolated incident:

1. Make sure you recycle it

We all know the benefits of recycling, but fewer than half of single-use bottles make it into the recycling system. The most important thing is to get it back into the circular economy and give it another opportunity to be useful, even if it means you have to carry it around for a day until you get to a proper recycling bin.

2. Buy as local as you can

The shorter the distance the water has travelled, the less CO2 it's used to get to you. So buy a UK water if you can or at least avoid brands that have travelled an enormous distance (like Fiji or brands from the USA).

3. Look for cloudy plastic bottles and/or recycled content

Clear PET plastic is made from the purest form of virgin plastic and is nearly impossible to make using recycled ingredients, so is the most energy intensive and least environmentally friendly option here. When recycled, PET plastic goes slightly cloudy, so if you can find one of those bottles with some recycled content then you're doing a little better than choosing a virgin clear bottle.

4. Buy in a glass bottle if available (and reasonably local)

Glass is far less energy and water intensive than plastic to manufacture, but is heavier to transport and therefore uses more emissions the farther it has travelled. Buying glass from far away generates more emissions than buying plastic from close by, but if they are roughly even then glass is preferable overall because it has far less opportunity to pollute and is also more infinitely recyclable. Or you can always keep the bottle to reuse at a later date.

Once you accept that the hype about bottled water being better than tap water just isn't true, there are plenty of options for more sustainable alternatives. With just a little effort, you can introduce a new water system in your company that means you save money and prevent a whole lot of unnecessary waste.

That brings me to the end of this series of Top 5 Quick Actions for Big Impact, I hope you've enjoyed this journey with me. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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