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Published September 8, 2008 09:04 AM

Bottled Water Demand May Be Declining

The U.S. bottled water market is slowing down after years of steady growth, suggesting that international awareness campaigns may be curbing consumer demand.

While bottled water continues to expand in global popularity, the U.S. market is expected to grow 6.7 percent this year, the smallest increase this decade, according to data collected by the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

The United States is the largest consumer of bottled water, but opposition is growing. In the past year, several restaurants, municipalities, natural food stores, and schools are deciding to "buy local" - choosing tap water rather than packaged products - for economic, environmental, or social justice reasons.

Bottled water sold in most industrialized countries costs between $500 and $1,000 per cubic meter, compared to $0.50 for municipal water in states such as California, according to Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of water bottled in the United States comes from public water supplies, and studies suggest that bottled water is not always cleaner than tap water. The bottled products also demand significant amounts of energy to be produced, packaged, stored, and transported.

While cities recycle about 23 percent of their plastic bottles, some 2 million tons of the bottles are sent to landfills each year, the Worldwatch Institute reported in 2007Corporate Accountability International estimates that the annual cost of disposing of water bottles is $70 million.

These concerns are beginning to cause a shift in consumer choices. Following the lead of U.S. cities such as San Francisco and Salt Lake City, the majority of the 250 mayors at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors in June voted to phase out government use of bottled water when possible. Bans on selling bottled water at city functions are also being considered across Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, according to Deborah Lapidus, the national organizer for Corporate Accountability International's Think Outside the Bottle Campaign.

"Certainly the bottled water industry's growth is slowing down," Lapidus said. "The consumer market is being affected by the fact that cities are doing these visible water bottle cancellations."

The U.S. bottled water industry's growth has declined for four years in a row. But Tom Lauria, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, said the advocacy campaigns are not the cause. "We have enjoyed meteoric growth in the past, but that's bound to level off," he said.

Since its bottle campaign began in 2006, Corporate Accountability International estimates that at least 60 cities have phased out or reduced spending on bottled water, and at least 60 U.S. restaurants have committed to serving tap water in place of bottled water, according to Mark Hays, the campaign's senior researcher.

The beverage industry is responding with increased lobbying efforts. When the U.S. Conference of Mayors began to consider discontinuing its bottled water contracts last year, the American Beverage Association and International Bottled Water Association joined the Mayors Business Council, according to the council's website. The paid membership grants industry representatives access to the conferences. "It's testament to our campaign and the bottled water movement... because the mayors have held firm and have not been influenced by this lobbying," Lapidus said.

The U.K.-based Children's Food Campaign is accusing the British Softdrinks Association of perpetuating myths that tap water is unsafe. According to the campaign, schoolchildren have received educational materials that claim refilling empty water bottles from the tap is "unsafe" and "can lead to contamination." Lauria said the industry does not contend that tap water poses health risks. Rather, the leaflets likely referred to unhealthy bacteria that often accumulate inside water bottles if the vessels are improperly cleaned, he said.

Corporate Accountability International has also been pressuring beverage companies Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle to disclose the sources and quality of their water. Last year, Pepsi announced that the label on its water product, Aquafina, would reveal that it originates mostly from purified, public water sources.   

Beverage companies are responding positively to some environmental concerns. Coca-Cola announced last year that it would put smaller caps on plastic bottles that are 24 ounces or smaller. The new cap allowed Coke to reduce its plastic intake by more than 1.8 million kilograms last year, and plastic reduction is expected to rise to at least 18 million kilograms by the end of 2008. The company also plans to recover 90 percent of its production waste and improve its water use ratio, according to its Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Report [PDF].

Global consumption of bottled water reached nearly 189 billion liters last year alone - a 7.6 percent increase from 2002 - led by growing demand in China. The United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Italy lead the world in per capita consumption, according to the beverage marketing data.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwatch.org

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