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It's just water. Right?

When the National Consumer Council recently investigated 'rip-off mineral water' in restaurants, it found one in five people 'slightly nervous' or 'too scared' to ask for tap water. The act of specifying tap water is a growing trend across major cities in developed economies. The Council’s research also confirmed the fact that consumer are rediscovering the taps in their own homes, with tales of carrying refillable bottles of home or filtered tap water to the gym, to the office and even to schools. In the US, camping shops selling metal water bottles have reported a huge increase in sales as the bottled-water bottle overtakes the plastic bag as the ultimate symbol of unsustainable spending.

During the summer, UK sales of the main brands of bottled water fell by 3.4 per cent, and 8.1 per cent for own brands, although these figures were attributed to a terrible summer rather than environmental consciousness. It is too early to proclaim the demise of the £2bn British water industry, but the industry that was born when, as an ex-chief executive of Perrier once put it, 'all you have to do is take the water out of the ground and then sell it for more than the price of wine, milk or oil,' would appear to be losing its charms.

Given that water bottles suffer from pitiful recycling and reuse rates, the question is: What happens to our enormous pile of empties? The answer isn't encouraging. Most are landfilled (Americans throw 30m water bottles into landfill every day) or, in the UK, increasingly incinerated, where only a tiny proportion of their energy value can be recovered; the rest becomes environmental pollution, particularly in the ocean where, as the plastic slowly breaks up, it poses a serious threat to wildlife.

Globally, nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to reach consumers. There are many horror stories of air freighted 'status' waters (such as Bling H2O, which is sold in a glass bottle adorned with Swarovski crystals) but in reality the journey of bottled water normally includes boat, train and truck - journeys that can still rack up considerable water miles and ensuing carbon emissions. In 2004 for example, Nord Water of Finland bottled and shipped 1.4m bottles of Finnish tap water 4,300 kilometres from its bottling plant in Helsinki to Saudi Arabia. Fiji water, a particularly powerful symbol of excess, which can apparently 'trace its origins to rainfall more than 400 years ago in the Fijian mountains' makes a journey of 10,000 miles to get to UK supermarket shelves.

Overall, the ecological burden of carting bottled water internationally (a quarter of all the bottled water we drink comes from France) and between source, bottling plants and central distribution points in the UK generates 30,100 tonnes of CO2. Then there's the extraction. Bottled water is big business, requiring industrial extraction and huge bottling plants. In the UK, Coca-Cola owns Malvern Hills water and a licence from the Environment Agency to draw 40m litres a year from the springs.

Naturally, the water industry argues that it is more sinned against than sinning; the British Bottled Water Producers (BBWP) point out that, because natural waters must be free from pollution, commercially exploited springs in the UK are some of the best managed environments in the country. 'Few other industries, except perhaps organic farming, play such a major role in protecting the countryside, doing much to minimise environmental damage.'

(adapted from The Observer, Sunday February 10 2008)