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Ethical Food & Drink – Bottled Water

Bottled water is, to put it simply, controversial. The very premise of the plastic bottle is itself problematic, with plastic pollution a source of very serious concern today. Think, for instance, of how for every six water bottles Americans use, only one makes it to the recycle bin.

In terms of general sustainability, a recent study has broken down just how much energy is used at each step of the manufacturing process, and the resulting figures are staggering. For instance, the study estimated that it required 32 million to 54 million barrels of oil to generate the energy needed to produce the amount of bottled water consumed in 2007 in the United States alone.

If that’s not cause for ethical reflection, how about this: another recent study from the International Bottled Water Association found that North American companies companies use 1.39 liters of water to fill a one liter bottle.

Our first and foremost recommendation is that it is always more ethical to drink tap water and to use re-usable bottles. A stainless steel re-usable bottle is one popular option.

However, if you find yourself out and about and in need of a drink, there are alternative Bottled Water brands which do score highly on the Ethical Company Index.

    Conventional hop farming uses a lot of pesticides – which results in what the pressure group Sustain describes as ‘scorched earth’ farming methods, where the ground between and beneath the hops is kept barren and dusty. Organic farming methods use mustard mixed with the hops to attract predators and combat aphid attacks.

    Traditionally, the barley for malting has come from the highest-quality spring crops, but recently there has been massive development of new winter barley varieties, on which farmers use almost double the number of pesticides. These changes, and the decrease in planting of summer barley, have badly damaged bird populations.

    Under current UK legislation, drinks containing over 1.2 per cent alcohol are exempt from the compulsory labelling applicable to other products for human consumption. This means that brewers don’t tell us when they use chemical additives, as many do to increase the shelf life of the beer or to alter the colour or flavour of the brew. The lack of mandatory labelling causes problems for vegetarians, as most beers do still use animal-derived products.

    Plasti‍‍‍c pollution – What are companies doing?

    ‍‍‍In that the serious and pressing issue of plastic pollution cannot be ignored, with some scientists considering it to be on the same scale as climate change, what are the ethically rated brands doing in response?

    We can report that Brecon Carreg are working on a number of initiatives to encourage consumers to recycle their plastic waste. This includes the company partnering with Recycle for Wales and Run 4 Wales, which highlight the importance of recycling to runners and spectators of the World Half Marathon and Cardiff Half Marathon. The bottled water brand is also working with the ‘Save the Mermaids campaign to highlight the importance of recycling to reduce river and marine litter. Finally, Brecon Carreg has also revealed that they are collaborating with the University of Wales Trinity St David, Swansea Business School and representatives from WRAP Cymru and Keep Wales Tidy in effort to look closer at circular alternatives.

    In June 2018, Highland Spring announced the trial of their new eco bottle™ (pictured above). This is a bottle made of 100% recycled plastic (that is also 100% recyclable), to help keep plastic in the circular economy and out of the oceans.  The trial started with the launch of a 500ml Highland Spring eco bottle™ in selected Tesco stores in Scotland, followed by Sainsbury’s stores in England.  Shoppers are invited to give feedback on the launch online or in-store.

    Life Water, which funds clean water projects across the globe, has launched The Life Water Can – the UK’s first zero plastic spring water option.  The cans are 100% recyclable and made from 70% recycled aluminium.

    Still mountain water from, One, can now be bought in a carton that is fully recyclable and made from sustainable paperboard (from FSC approved forests).  Profits fund sustainable water projects for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

    Go local

    As a general rule, when buying bottled water try and choose the most local brand you can find. If you’re int he UK, for example, than buy brands that are sourced in the UK and therefore have a much smaller carbon footprint.

    Every bottle of Perrier sold around the world is bottled at source in Vergèze, France. Readers in, say, Glasgow, could be drinking water that has travelled over 900 miles.

    An environmental packaging solution is the re-usable glass bottle. In other European countries, such as Germany, higher proportions of all drinks come in returnable bottles. The bottled water producers are members of a pool system, with their brands being distinguished by label but the bottles shared, allowing short transport distances from individual to refiller.

    In the UK, it seems that the big national breweries, soft drinks producers and supermarkets are reluctant to use refillable glass bottles because of the extra effort (floor space and staff time) it would cause them. They would rather deal with plastics and prefer to encourage recycling, which hands the work over to the individual. Most councils will collect bottles bearing the numbers one (PET) or two (HDPE), but it is still difficult to find a recycling point for any other type of plastic.

    Pure, but how pure?

    ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍Although bottled water claims a natural, pure an‍‍‍d healthy image, all waters must meet strict quality requirements. The area surrounding a Natural Mineral Water spring requires protection against pollution, and although Natural Mineral Water is legally ‘pure’, this is not true of all water that is sold in bottles.

    When you look at the rows of bottled water in supermarkets (there are up to forty varieties) whose purity is emphasised by waterfalls and mountains, it’s easy to forget the complexity of treatment that some water from a source goes through before being bottled.

    Those with high blood pressure, or others who need to follow a low sodium (salt) diet should check the mineral content of their water carefully. Natural mineral waters can only claim they’re suitable for a low sodium diet if they contain less than 20mg per litre. Current advice from the Food Standards Agency is that some bottled waters shouldn’t be used for babies: ‘Waters to avoid are those with high levels of nitrite, sodium, fluoride and sulphate. There are limits for these in tap, spring and other bottled drinking waters, but not in natural mineral waters.’

    Mix it ‍‍‍‍‍‍up

    The Dri‍‍‍nking Water Inspectorate in the UK has warned that if opportunities are not taken to improve public perception of tap water, people will never appreciate the plentiful low cost water supplied to their taps. So don’t be afraid to ask for tap water!

    Key Research

    Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Food & Drink:

    We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Highland Spring, Ballygowan, Campsie Spring, Life, One, Harrogate, Hildon, Strathmore, Thirsty Planet, Brecon Carreg, Deeside, Willow, Isklar, Badoit, Evian, Volvic, Iceni, Aqua Pura, Buxton, Perrier, Pure Life, San Pellegrino, Vittel.

    Disclosure:  Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning we earn commission if you click through and make a purchase. Placement and use of these links has no bearing in terms of the ethical scores that we give to a brand.  All commission earned by The Good Shopping Guide is re-invested into the research carried out by The Ethical Company Organisation.

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