Bottled Water or Tap Water? An analysis.

A Week’s Bottled Water
A Week’s Bottled Water; photo contributed by the author

The Popularity of Bottled Water

I am trying to understand the popularity of buying bottled water. Every day in the supermarket I see people heaving the family packs into their trolleys. A quick price calculation reveals that at about 33p a litre, for a family of four each drinking their two litres per day, that amounts to £18.48 per week. Compare that with South-East tap water at £0.002 per litre = 11.2p for the family in a week (including standing charge).

Price is obviously not the deciding factor. So let’s see how it is marketed. For example Buxtons proclaims on the label,

“British and Pure. Naturally rising from the green and pleasant land of the Peak District. Journeys over 5 000 years until it is forced up through a mile of British rock and bottled at an untouched artesian source.”

Wow! We are being sold purity, patriotism, British rock, the past 5 000 years, some hard work (forcing), all untouched by grubby hands, but yet artisan (vaguely artisan and craft-like, but really a technical term for a rocky well). No wonder British shoppers buy this guff. The message is wonderful. We can feel virtuous not buying the alcohol or the sugary drinks, and healthy in buying “pure” water.

St Ann's Well, Buxton
St Ann’s Well, Buxton; photo by David Seale, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Health Benefits of Water

What exactly are the health benefits of various types of water? There is a long history of humankind valuing ‘mineral water’. This is why temples and health  resorts were situated near supposedly health-giving springs, and spa towns, like Tunbridge Wells, were developed. Buxton is also a Spa town, in the Peak district of Derbyshire.

We may have noticed that water from the tap tastes different in different parts of the UK. From childhood, I have always assumed that water from British taps is safe to drink unless there is a notice, as we used to see in British Rail toilets and on aircraft “not drinking water.” Travelling elsewhere in the world, I was not so sure. In rural Africa, the polite way around this question was to accept tea (boiled water) rather than ask awkward questions about where the water came from.

Little Trust in US Water

In the USA, there is huge mistrust of piped water, 

“While tap water is relatively safe for most people, common contaminants after treatment include arsenic, aluminum, copper, iron, lead, pesticides, herbicides, uranium, and trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs”.

Arguments are put forward for buying spring water on health grounds:

“The mineral content in spring water varies, but studies show that its higher mineral content can help us meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) of certain nutrients like magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium, particularly in cases where nutrient requirements are not being met with a healthy diet.”

Alkaline diets and alkaline water have become all the rage these days, and there’s some good science behind why. The SAD (Standard American Diet) is sky-high in acidic foods like refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, chemical additives, and highly processed foods. For this reason, consider the food and water you consume as a catalyst to support a more alkaline state which is critical for your health.

Alkaline water as antioxidant

Alkaline water is usually around 8 or 9 on the pH scale, compared to tap water that is closer to 7 or less. Water with more alkalinity works as an antioxidant, meaning it has the ability to fight off excessive free radicals in the body, which are essentially unstable atoms linked to oxidative stress, accelerated aging and a host of diseases, like cancer.

Mineral levels vary among tap water sources and research shows that European tap water tends to contain higher mineral content than tap water in the United States. Depending on where you live, tap water in the US comes primarily from three sources – lakes, rivers, and groundwater.”

So is the increased consumption of bottled water in other countries just part of the Americanisation of the world? Even in China, one of the richest Chinese billionaires made his money from bottled water. The argument for alkaline water, note, is that it can counter some of the worst effects of the standard American diet.

Not just an American fad

But it is not only an American fad. The French and the Italians have long been in the business of selling water, with Evian from France and San Celestino from Italy. Indeed, in my childhood, drinking mineral water from a bottle seemed more of a ‘continental’ custom. Someone, probably my father with experience in France and Germany during the war, told me that they drank water from bottles because you couldn’t really trust that their plumbing delivered good enough water to drink. So we children were patriotically happy to drink our Kentish tap water.

Kent water is indeed hard, with high calcium content due to coming from chalky or limestone sources. Some people may think it is dirty due to the limescale that builds up in kettles and taps. But if the health explanations above are valid, a higher calcium content is probably good for us. The limescale is easily cleared with a regular dose of de-liming chemical.

Wrong chemical balance

It is not healthy to use water purifiers all the time if they strip out the calcium. Indeed if you install a water softener in your household, you have to ensure your drinking water comes straight from the street inlet pipe and not the water softener, or you will be drinking water with the wrong chemical balance. The chemistry of our water in the South East is engineered as our water is not artisan (straight from the rock springs).

Drinking water in the UK contains fluoride by law as that helps to keep our teeth healthy. None of the brands of water I checked list fluoride on the label. The one that listed the PH balance stated it was 7–8, so not at all the high alkalinity above 8 claimed as a bonus of American spring water.

Carbon cost of bottled water

My green conscience is troubled by the possible carbon cost of bottled water compared to piped.  However when I checked on the status of PET bottles, the damage to the planet is not as bad as I had expected because the industry increasingly uses recycled PET, so the use of oil is minute, and KCC carts the PET bottles to the Rochester facility for recycling back into the bottling industry.

However, the carbon cost of the transport must also be considered. Buxtons tries to counter this worry by claiming that their bottles travel on average only 135 miles to reach the customer. But as a pedestrian shopper, the weight of all those bottles would add uncomfortably to my shopping chores. It must be one of the factors that drives people to take their cars for the weekly shop, or get deliveries. It may stop them in future from making more shopping trips by bike or scooter, with shopping in the knapsack or carrier.

Bottled Water Aisle at Lidl; photo contributed by the author

So what is wrong with using tap water? Our ancestors have provided an excellent network of pipes for most British residences. Many towns also had public taps. Indeed the Mayor of London is trying to re-open these as part of a campaign to get people to use refill bottles for water on the go. I would like by-laws making it compulsory for any outlet selling food to also dispense tap-water, even if they need to charge 20p for the service.

But when I tried to request a refill at a beachfront café recently I was refused and told to buy bottled water. I can see why, at 69p a bottle. The whole industry is far too profitable, for everyone from factory to shop.