Holidaymakers in South Africa’s drought-stricken areas looking for a healthy, guilt-free alternative to the tap when it comes to slaking their thirst and staying hydrated should reach for the bottled water bottle this year. This is the message from South African National Bottled Water Association CEO, Charlotte Metcalf, who pointed out that water — in all its forms — is a vital component of the human diet, especially during the heat of a South African summer.
Sensible travellers and holiday makers will ensure their suitcases contain sun screens and hats to protect them and their families from the summer sun, and water to slake their thirst and fend off dehydration, she said. And this year, particularly when travelling in or visiting drought-stricken areas, they should reach for bottled water instead of tap to help reduce the pressure on already severely stressed municipal water distribution systems.
The obvious question in drought-stricken areas in South Africa is ‘Is the bottled water industry exacerbating the drought?’ and the answer from Metcalf is ‘No’.
“More than 90% of packaged waters in South Africa are either natural water or water defined by origin. This means that 90% of the industry is water sourced from underground sustainable sources or springs,” she said. “Since no water from any of these sources enters the municipal system, the fact that these sources are used for bottled water has no impact at all on the amount of water South Africa’s municipalities and Government departments have available to distribute. Further, given that less than 10% of all water bottled and sold in South Africa is defined as packaged water but that the entire bottled water industry accounts for only 8.9% of the entire non-alcoholic packaged beverage industry, just under 1% (0.89%) of non-alcoholic packaged beverages sold in South Africa is prepared water, or water which could come from a municipal system.
“That’s a negligible amount, especially compared to the bigger players in the non-alcoholic packaged beverage category,” she said.
Metcalf suggested travellers check the source of the water in those bottles they buy because many of the shop-floor systems and restaurant offerings, particularly those offered in skittle-shaped bottles with Grolsh-type lids, are simply filtered or ozonated tap water. Instead, seek out natural, spring and mineral water brands featuring the SANBWA logo, she advised.
“All SANBWA member producers carry the SANBWA logo on their bottles. This acts as a seal of quality and a commitment to environmental responsibility as the SANBWA Bottled Water Standard covers legal, hygiene, food safety and quality, and environmental requirements, including measures to ensure source sustainability and protection such as undergoing a detailed environmental impact assessments and hydrogeological examinations, water usage and solid waste minimisation, energy efficiency, and post-consumer recycling initiatives.”
Metcalf added that water is the best packaged beverage option for the environment, as it has the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages, particularly when you recycle as the bottle’s impact on the environment can be reduced immediately by 25% when you do so.
SANBWA’s recycling tips include:
- Set up a holding area for your recyclables in your car – it could be a packet or a box in your boot.
- Bring it home. When you’re out and about and empty a plastic container (water, iced tea, colddrink, sunscreen etc), bring it home for recycling if there are no recycling options around you.
- If there is a recycling bin nearby, make certain it is for plastic, and not glass or paper. And make certain that you deposit the container securely in the bin.
- Keep the cap on. Make sure to not throw the cap in separately as it may get lost in the transportation process and become litter.
- Visit http://www.petco.co.za/ag3nt/system/recycling_06_drop.php to find a collection depot near you.
Note to editors: Extra facts about Bench-Top & Shop Floor Water Bottling Systems – White-Washing? Green-Washing? True?
South Africa’s drought conditions have prompted the launch of a number of packaged drinking water ‘innovations’. Included among these are bench-top filtering and bottling systems that pre-fill sealed containers, and companies that refill containers with either filtered, treated or non-treated waters (such as water that has been through reverse osmosis and ozonated water), often inside retail outlets. Most claim to be the equivalent of bottled water when it comes to quality, drought-beaters, and anti-plastic waste. Are these claims true, or are they simply green-washing?
- Water is water is water NOT
The claim that these systems provide consumers with water of comparable quality to bottled water is false. Let’s unpack why.
Firstly, we need to understand bottled water. There are three types of bottled water in South Africa:
- natural waters (water obtained directly from a natural or drilled underground source, bottled near the source under hygienic conditions); about 70% of all bottled water in South Africa is natural water
- water defined by origin (including spring and mineral water); these account for about 20% of all bottled water in South Africa
- prepared water (water sourced ‘from a tap’ that has undergone antimicrobial treatment as well as treatment that alters the original physical or chemical properties of the water); about 10% of all bottled water in South Africa is prepared water
Then, we need to know how water in South Africa is regulated. Importantly, bottled water is legislated as a ‘food product’ (the name of the category is ‘packaged water’), and is regulated by the Department of Health as such. This includes meeting stringent quality control, food safety and packaging legislation:
- Adhering to microbiological legislation: Regulations Governing Microbiological Standards for Foodstuffs and related matters, R.692
- Conforming to treatment, labelling and chemical regulations as per R.718
- Conforming labelling legislation as detailed in R.718 and Regulations Relating to Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, R.146
- All food hygienic design and hygienic handling legislation
In contrast, tap water is legislated as ‘drinking water’ and therefore needs to comply with public water supply regulations.
The Department of Health views other waters as follows:
- Bulk water transported in tankers to distribute to rural or urban areas = public water supply and not within the scope of packaged water legislation
- Re-filling into the consumer’s own containers = drinking water not within the scope of packaged water legislation
- Bulk water in large bottles for office coolers = packaged water
- Bench-top treated waters and shop-floor treated waters bottled on site = packaged water
Drinking water and packaged water cannot be compared in terms of quality because they need to comply with different standards and legislation.
Members of the South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) bottle just over 80% of the water available through formal retail and hospitality outlets in South Africa. The standards to which they are required to bottle are amongst the most stringent worldwide.
Asked what scares her most about the claims that ‘water is water is water’, SANBWA Executive Director, Charlotte Metcalf, answered the potential health risks consumers face without being made aware that they even exist. “Let’s forget for a moment that claiming to deliver the same quality as bottled water when you don’t meet the same set of standards is blatantly misleading to consider the health risks,” she said.
“The quality of municipal water in South Africa is – generally speaking – high but it does vary daily. If you live in Johannesburg, for example, you can check for yourself the fecal contamination of the water in your taps. Rand Water updates its reports on its web site daily. I don’t know how often the water sources for these bench top or shop floor systems, the nearest tap, are tested and there’s also no guarantee how often they change the filters they use. If the filter is expensive, who’s to say the suggested change-out cycle hasn’t been stretched.
“Then, because these systems do not operate in a clean room environment, secondary contamination from air poorly sterilised containers and handling is a given. Given that these systems mostly claim to remove chlorine, the water they offer effectively has no defence against the growth of bacteria and other microbiological organisms. Removal of chlorine and microorganisms is a far cry from the chemical and microbiological requirements for packaged water. Maybe that’s not a problem in a restaurant, if you are guaranteed that the bottle you ordered is filled to order, but what if it’s the first task of the day? And, who knows how long the bottles on the retail shelves have been standing there? Ideally, this category of water should be offered in a glass or jug, not a closed bottle system mimicking bottled water. Plus, in the absence of chlorine, you do need according to South African legislation to disclose data on shelf-life. I’ve yet to see that information shared with consumers.
“Finally, if the system itself and the containers it is refilling are not properly cleaned and sterilised they quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria. In fact, the Grolsch-type closure – I can’t call it a seal because it is not regarded as one by law – is one of the worst offenders as that little rubber washer is notoriously difficult to sterilise.”
- Busting the drought
Importantly, as drought-beaters or water-wise solutions to the water crisis, these systems fail miserably because most of them get their water from the municipal supply and therefore afford no drought relief.
So there you are, in a restaurant ordering water from the establishment’s bench-top filling system (the bottles these use are typically elegant glass with a ‘Grolsch’ like closure) because you want to contribute to the drought effort while reducing the number of plastic bottles going to landfill, but the system is tapping – pun intended – into the very system you wanted to protect.
Or, you are beguiled by the marketing phrases of retail store systems and opt to take along your own containers to be filled but you’re not told the system is connected to the municipal supply via a tap.
Furthermore, there’s all the water wasted when it comes to cleaning these systems and the bottles used. (And you’d better hope they are cleaned really well as they are breeding grounds for bacteria.) All told, your one litre bottle with lunch probably took three litres to produce.
By the way, bottled water production in South Africa has an extremely low water footprint, or ‘water usage’ value. The industry benchmark is 1.8:1, and there are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1.2:1 – 1.4:1.
- Pulverising the plastic
Granted, the reusable ‘Grolsch’ bottle as well as the reusable bottles you utilise at home do prevent you from purchasing a PET bottle every time you want to drink water. But, you know as well as I do, bottles don’t litter, people do. If you recycle that bottle, you reduce its environmental footprint by 25%. In addition, plastic bottled water bottles aren’t even the biggest culprits in the grander scheme of plastic litter. Bottled water comprises only 8.9% of the total beverage market in South Africa and according to PETCO South Africans currently recycle 55% of all PET bottles.
So simply recycle and be sure to encourage those who imbibe carbonated soft drinks, iced teas, flavoured milks, energy drinks and fruit juices to do the same. These packaged beverages are responsible for 96.7% of the waste but we don’t see them being offered ‘on tap’ in restaurants and shops.
So, drought-beater = greenwash; anti-plastic waste = fair claim (if the proprietor has a recycling programme in place for the valves, seals and bags the system utilises and encourages his consumers to recycle their bottles when they reach the end of their lifespan); equivalent quality = complete and utter whitewash.
Consumers are entitled to choice – bottled water itself exists as a packaged beverage alternative to the other packaged beverages on the shelf. However, in order to exercise that choice, consumers must be fully informed, and right now, they’re being misled, either by blatant untruths or omission, by those offering alternatives to bottled water. Neither is acceptable.