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Tuesday, 08 October 2013 15:05

Bottled water – the good, the bad and the misconceptions

WATER 360 debunks the myths of bottled water – the fastest growing beverage category in the world.

According to research company BMi, South Africa’s bottled water market experienced a boom between 2004 and 2010 with growth of 20.7%. In 2010, 398 million litres of bottled water (8.3 litres/capita) was consumed in South Africa; the forecasted growth to 2014 is 2.3% and will bring the total volume to 426 million litres. This volume includes consumption from all sectors, such as retail, wholesale and imports.

That said, bottled water as a consumer product in South Africa constitutes only 1.4% of the total beverage industry (by volume). It is a natural and healthy alternative to other beverages and claims to not compete against tap water for share of mouth.

In South Africa today, bottled water is a food product category of its own and is regulated by the Department of Health as such.

It takes more than one litre of water to make one a 1-litre bottle of bottled water. The South African industry benchmark is 1.8:1, and there are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1.2:1 – 1.4:1.

Because almost 96% of bottled water is sold in single-size polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, recycling is important to the bottled water industry.

According to the PET recycling company PETCO, the plastics industry’s joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer PET recycling, PET is used to produce soft drink and water bottles which are 100% recyclable. It is also used to produce plastic jars, containers, trays and clamshell packages.

In the last eight years, the number of post-consumer PET bottles being recycled has grown from 328-million bottles (equivalent of 9 840 tonnes of PET) to1.6-billion PET bottles in 2012, or 4.5-million bottles a day in 2012. This is 45% of all beverage bottles produced, which are almost one in every 2 bottles sold. This puts South Africa just under the European average and above the USA when it comes to post-consumer PET recycling rates.

The South African bottled water industry is a very small consumer of PET as it accounts for only 1.4% of the total beverage industry, according to recent BMi research.

In the last eight years, the number of post-consumer PET bottles being recycled has grown from 328-million bottles (equivalent of 9 840 tonnes of PET) to1.6-billion PET bottles in 2012, or 4.5-million bottles a day in 2012.

South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) CEO, Charlotte Metcalf, says: “Bottled water is the best packaged beverage option for the environment. It has the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages — one that can be reduced by 25% if consumers would simply recycle the bottle.”

The South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) standard

SANBWA first developed its own standard in the late 1990s and in May 2010 in conjunction with NSF-CMi Africa launched the third version in May 2010.

The standard reflects the current best practices and legislation for bottling water of all types in South Africa and is comparable to the main food and beverage standards in major markets around the world. The major objective of the standard is to provide existing and new bottlers with a vision for future improvements.

It addresses legal, food safety, quality and environmental issues by putting six main elements under the spotlight:

• Management commitment.

• Quality systems.

• Hazard analysis and critical control points.

• Resources (including pre-requisite programmes).

• Operational controls.

• Environmental stewardship.


Its environmental policy covers four critical areas:

• Water: Ensuring effective water management from source to shelf, including requirements for source protection, efficient water usage and responsible effluent practices.

• Solid waste: Reducing, re-using, recycling all solids involved in the production and distribution of their products.

• Energy: Promoting the efficient use of energy and fuels.

• Post-distribution recycling: Supporting municipal and consumer initiatives for recycling packaging and bottles.

The standard also provides the basis for SANBWA’s annual member plant audits and has been benchmarked against the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). It includes all the relevant control points of global standards such as BRC, IFS, ISO22000, SANS 10330, SANS 1049 and the NSF Beverage Standards.

In an effort to raise awareness on the importance of recycling water bottles, PETCO recently partnered with Coca-Cola Shanduka beverages to launch an innovative school recycling programme in Mpumalanga. They also partner with NAMPAK/WESSA Eco Schools as well as the ABI schools program.

PETCO Category B Regional Representative, Agripa Munyai, encouraged pupils to relook at some of the material they throw away because it is valuable and can be recycled. “Recycling is the number one option, and remember that plastic bottles are not trash,” he said at the Shanduka launch.

The truth about PET

• There is no dioxin in PET plastic. Dioxin, a chlorine-containing chemical has no role or presence in the chemistry of PET

• Bisphenol A (BPA) is not used to make PET, nor is it used to make any of the component materials used to make PET.

• There is no DEHA present in PET, either as a raw material or as a decomposition product. DEHA is also not classified as a human carcinogen and is not considered to pose any significant health risk to humans. It can be found in water – bottled or tap water – and is then called DOA. DOA is one of the organic containments commonly found at trace levels in just about all drinking water. It is also sometimes – wrongly – interpreted as Diethylhydroxylamine, which is not found in PET or in the production of PET bottles.

• There are no substances that can migrate from PET which could be responsible for the endocrine disruptors (substances having a hormonal effect) identified in a study commonly referred to as the Goethe Study.

• PET contains antimony oxide, which is used as a catalyst. However, the amounts are well below the established safe limits for food and water set by the World Health Organisation. For example, a 60kg person would be able to tolerate an intake of 360ug, but the guideline for drinking water is 15-20ug/l.

Bottled water is one of the safest, healthiest and most environmentally-friendly packaged beverages in the retailer’s fridge, yet its detractors persist in repeating disproved data and blatantly incorrect facts.

While it is certainly not the largest contributor to South Africa’s economy, the bottled water industry plays a vital role by employing 1 800 people and generating sales of over R3 550-million. The annual growth is currently approximately 2.3%.


Bottled water / packaged water: Water that is packed in sealed containers of various forms and capacities, and which is offered for sale as a foodstuff for human consumption, but does not contain sugars, sweeteners, flavourings or any other foodstuffs.

Carbonated bottled water: Bottled water which, after possible treatment and packaging, has been made effervescent by the addition of carbon dioxide.

De-ionisation: Water is passed through resins which remove most of the dissolved minerals. Distillation: Water is vaporised and then condensed, which leaves the water free of any dissolved solids (minerals).

Natural mineral water: Natural water that has a substantially constant temperature and mineral and trace element composition acquired from the rock strata through which it has moved.

Natural water: It means bottled water derived from an underground formation which has not been modified and has not undergone treatment other than separation from unstable constituents by decantation or filtration, removal of carbon dioxide, addition of carbon dioxide.

Prepared water: It means bottled water that has undergone any treatment acceptable for bottled waters and may originate from any type of water supply.

Spring water: Bottled water sourced from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth, and which is collected from the spring or a borehole tapping the underground formation, and which may be classified as “natural water” or “water defined by origin”, depending on the treatments undergone.

Water defined by origin: Water originating from an underground or surface water system, which flows naturally from its source, e.g. spring water, artesian water, rainwater, etc.

Despite its many controversies, bottled water is the only option for some communities who do not have access to piped water. Bottled water has a long shelf life, if bottled correctly, which may be the answer to many thirsty communities’ prayers.

Additionally, South African bottled water adheres to the strict SANBWA standards that are regulated by the Department of Health and have been benchmarked against international standards. Furthermore, contrary to misconceptions, bottled water production in South Africa is extremely water-efficient.

Bottled water in South Africa constitutes only 1,4% of the country’s total beverage industry.

Continuous sustainability is about creating accessible and stable markets that offer low environmental impact, good quality products at a fair price. Bottled water companies are reducing their environmental footprint by using lighter weight PET packaging and supporting comprehensive recycling programmes, which is a very significant step towards giving bottled water the sustainable credentials it deserves.


Debunking bottled water myths

Myth 1: Bottled water versus tap water

Industry research in the United States (US) shows most people who drink bottled water also drink tap water, and they choose accessible, calorie-free bottled water as an alternative to less healthy packaged drinks.


Myth 2: Bottled water is not necessarily pure

In the US, much is made of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) testing of 1 000 bottles of water, which discovered that about 22% of the brands in the study contained chemical contaminants at levels above state health limits.

This information is from a 1999 NRDC report that has been thoroughly debunked as “junk science”. Locally, about 80% of bottled water producers belong to SANBWA and they are required to subscribe to SANBWA’s stringent standards. Developed over many years and based on wide review and consultation, this single standard benchmarks favourably against international standards and provides existing and new bottlers with a vision for future improvements by putting six main elements under the spotlight:

• Management commitment.

• Quality systems.


• Resources (including pre-requisite programmes).

• Operational controls.

• Environmental stewardship.


Myth 3: PET bottles leach carcinogenic substances into the water

The idea that plastic can leach into bottled water is incorrect, and is actually a popular urban myth that has been debunked by many credible scientific sources in recent years. It stems from a concern about phthalates and BPA, which do not exist in PET (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is used for numerous types of packaging for many foods, including everything from tomato sauce, peanut butter, soft drinks, and juices to beer, wine and spirits, yet no one discourages people from consuming any of these products.

PET itself is biologically inert if ingested, is safe during handling and is not a hazard if inhaled, according to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Report Packaging Materials 1, Polyethylene Terephthalate PET for Food Packaging Applications (2000).


Myth 4: The bottles are made from oil, thereby contributing to the petrol crisis, and no one bothers to recycle them

PET plastic is a polymer manufactured from oil-based raw material. It is a tough, resilient and 100% recyclable material.

South Africa uses approximately 166 000 tons (1%) of the 15-million tons of PET resin made globally every year. Of this 150 000 tons, only 6 000 tons (4%) are used by the local bottled water industry. The remaining 96% is used to bottle other beverages and other products, including food.

In addition, Metcalf points out that, thanks to PETCO, some 45% of PET bottles in South Africa are recycled.


Myth 5: The bottled water industry is a poor user of our water resources

Bottled water production in South Africa is actually a very water-efficient business as it has an extremely low “water usage” factor. The term “water usage” refers to how much water is used to make a finished product. This measure – sometimes called water footprint – includes both direct and indirect water usage, and includes water from boreholes and municipal sources.

The South African industry benchmark is 1,8:1 and there are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1,2:1 to 1,4:1 by recycling their bottle rinse water.

Put another way, the South African national usage of water by the bottled water industry equates to 22,7 litres per second.  A golf course uses one litre per second per hole (or 18 litres per second for an 18-hole golf course), so the total bottled water industry’s use is equivalent to that used by one and a half golf courses. By comparison, to produce 1 kg of maize requires 900 litres of water, one cup of coffee needs 140 litres of water and to produce 1 sheet of A4 paper requires 10 litres of water.

Source: SANBWA


You can assist in increasing collection of good, clean PET by:

• Participation in collection and awareness raising projects.

• Making use of drop off facilities and plastics recovery stations at municipal collection points.

• Separation of waste into recyclable and non-recyclable.

• Increased purchasing and use of clear bags (that make it easier for collectors to see what’s in them).

• Maybe even buying items containing recycled content to “close the loop”.


Find your nearest drop-off site or buy-back centre for recyclables at or visit

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to the South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA), the CSIR and PETCO for the information given to write this article.