The notion of water charges has not been universally popular in Ireland – at least when it comes to the water from our taps. When it comes to bottled water, however, we appear to have no problem paying for it. We spend millions of euro on hundreds of millions of litres of water every year without so much as a whisper of a protest on O'Connell Street.
Someone who drinks just one bottle of mineral water every day is spending twice as much each year as the water charges, which have been suspended.
According to the most recent figures from grocery analyst Kantar Worldpanel, in the year to the middle of July, Irish consumers spent more than €76.5 million on bottled water – that is about €15.30 per head. By comparison, just over €153 million was spent on carbonated soft drinks.
In terms of volume, however, the positions are reversed. More than 152 million litres of bottled water were sold in the Republic in the 12 months to the middle of July, whereas just under 138 million litres of soft drinks were drunk by Irish consumers.
A cursory look at the monetary values of the two product categories might lead one to believe that soft drinks will forever be the top dog with a commanding and unassailable lead. But a look at the trend paints a very different picture.
In the 12 months to the middle of July 2014, soft drink sales in the Republic were said by Kantar to be worth €148 million, which means that between then and now sales have increased by more than 3 per per cent.
Not too shabby? Not until you look at the performance of bottled water over the same period. In the 12 months to the middle of July 2014, bottled water sales in the Republic were said by Kantar to be worth €64.5 million. Compare that with today’s figure of €76.5 million and you will see that sales have grown by nearly 19 per cent in just two years. That is a number that has the growth of soft drinks looking rather meagre.
Ireland is not the only place where this is happening. Earlier this month, international news wires carried reports that, in volume terms, the bottled water market in the US is set to overtake the soft drinks market for the first time this year.
That news is even more extraordinary when you consider how negatively bottled water is viewed by many in the United States. While bottled water is considered rather benignly in this country, there is a growing consensus in the US that the product is not entirely pure. More than 10 US colleges do not allow bottled water to be sold in campus restaurants, and bottled water is also prohibited at more than 20 national parks. Several cities, including New York, have banned officials from using public money to buy bottled water.
The reason so many are so hard on something so popular is pretty easy to understand. Bottled water might be much better for you than sugary soft drinks, but it is terrible for the environment. And it’s not great for your pocket, either.
Speaking to Bloomberg earlier this month Peter Gleick, the president emeritus and chief scientist at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, suggested it is about 2,000 times more expensive than tap water. But the cost to consumers is not the main concern of environmentalists.
It takes three litres of water to manufacture a one-litre bottle of the stuff. And it takes more than 1,000 years for a water bottle to biodegrade. Each year people on our planet dump more than three million tons of plastic bottles into landfill. In the US alone about 30 million water bottles end up in landfill every day.
It gets worse. The production of a litre of bottled water emits hundreds of times more greenhouse gases than a litre of tap water, and making enough plastic to satisfy the US water market takes 17 million barrels of oil – enough fuel to keep half of Ireland’s two million cars motoring for a year.
Perhaps the most troubling water statistic of all comes from the World Health Organisation. More than 1.6 million people in the developing world die each year from drinking contaminated water. The vast majority of these are children under five. We in the developed world spend more on bottled water every year than would be needed to eradicate the deaths of all the children infected with fatal waterborne illnesses.
But despite the environmental and ethical concerns about water, sales continue to grow. You might imagine that the popularity of bottled water is a cause of concern for soft drink makers, but the reality is quite the opposite. Brands such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper are top of the bottled-water pile, so they win either way.
Some people drink bottled water out of choice, others out of necessity. In places such as Galway city and Co Roscommon, a leaking, unfit-for-purpose water infrastructure has meant people have not been able to drink the water that comes from the taps and have no choice but to boil it or buy bottled.
Policy and campaigns manager at Friends of the Earth Kate Ruddock says the manner in which many people buy bottled water without even thinking about the long-term consequences is a concern.
“There are towns all over the country where people can’t drink water from their taps because it is not considered safe, and that is obviously a real problem,” she says.
“But for millions of other people, tap water is perfectly safe, and I think we need to be cognisant of the impact the production and the bottling has.
“Many people drink from reusable bottles, but too many others just buy bottled water without thinking and then dispose of the bottles. There are costs associated with the production of the bottled water and then the disposal of the bottles after one-time use. We just need to be aware of that cost.”