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21st March 2023
Global Bottled Water Industry: A Review of Impacts and Trends

by Administrator in UNU-INWEH Reports

The report examines facts and perceptions about bottled water in the global context. It analyses the geography, structure, trends, and drivers of the global bottled water market. It examines the existing knowledge on the quality of bottled water, its impacts on water resources, and its role in plastic pollution. It raises the question of the bottled water industry’s contribution to the sustainable development goal on universal access to safe drinking water. The analysis considered only those types of bottled water that have little or no difference in taste from the tap water provided by regular municipal water supply. It is shown that bottled water is widely consumed in the both Global North and South although prices can be orders of magnitude higher than tap water.

The current global bottled water sales are estimated at almost 270 billion US$ and 350 billion liters. The report maps and ranked the top 50 countries in the world by total and per capita bottled water sales both in dollars and liters. The Asia-Pacific region constitutes about half of the global bottled water market, and the Global South countries together about 60%. The USA, China and Indonesia combined comprise half of the global market. Germany is the biggest market in Europe, Mexico in the LAC region and South Africa in Africa. Singapore and Australia stand out as the leaders in
both annual revenue and volume of bottled water sold per capita, with the USA and China per capita indicators being much smaller.

The report indicates that bottled water market drivers differ significantly between the Global North and the Global South. In the former, bottled water is often perceived as a healthier and tastier product than tap water and is more a luxury good than a necessity. In the Global South, bottled
water sales are stimulated primarily by the lack or absence of a reliable public water supply. Based on around 60 case studies from more than 40 countries from every region of the world, the report illustrates that there have been numerous cases of inorganic, organic, and microbiological contamination of hundreds of bottled water brands of all bottled water types and that such contamination often exceeded local or global standards. This represents strong evidence against the misleading perception that bottled water is an unquestionably safe drinking water source and argues that the provision of a safe and reliable drinking water supply in any country may not be achieved at the expense of one water source over another.

Withdrawals for bottled water can contribute to groundwater resource depletion in areas of bottled water procurement, although case studies that illustrate this are rare. However, even if such withdrawals are small in absolute terms globally or compared to larger water consumers like irrigated agriculture, local impacts on water resources may be significant. The lack of data available on water volumes extracted by the bottled water industry is largely due to the lack of transparency and a legal foundation that would have forced bottling companies to publicly disclose extracted water volumes and assess the environmental consequences of their activities. The Global South, where safe drinking tap water is not always available, represents potential future markets for bottled water. Lack of national policies for water management may promote uncontrolled groundwater withdrawals for bottled water procurement with little or no contribution to a sustainable long-term drinking water supply.

The report collates scattered information on plastic pollution associated with bottled water, pointing out that the world currently generates around 600 billion plastic bottles amounting to approximately 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, which is not recycled but is disposed of in landfills
or as unregulated waste. While there are signs of growing social awareness of the adverse impacts of plastics on the environment, a breakthrough solution that could radically reduce the environmental impacts of plastics does not yet appear to exist. Hence plastic pollution will likely continue in the years to come.

The report argues that while progress toward universal access to safe drinking water for all is significantly off-track, the expansion of bottled water markets slows this progress down, distracting attention and resources from accelerated public water supply systems development. Estimates suggest that less than half of what the world pays for bottled water annually would be sufficient to ensure clean tap water access for hundreds of millions of people without it – for years. There are recent high-level initiatives that aim to scale up financing for the Sustainable Development Goals, including water-related ones. Such initiatives are an opportunity for the bottled water sector to become an active player in this process and help accelerate the progress toward sustainable water supply, particularly in the Global South.