According to advertising gurus the story of selling bottled water is now the gold standard in marketing con jobs. (Our descriptors, not theirs.) It’s taught in advertising schools everywhere.

Here’s what those geniuses of spin did: they turned a commodity that comes out of the tap for next to no cost and which in most places in Australia tastes pretty good, put it in a bottle and then added a 2600 per cent mark up.

This has created an entire industry. In addition to the advertising industry there are now huge manufacturers that make loads of money and create jobs by producing bottled water. Worthy social clubs and places such as university student unions say bottled water is a key part of their income. And it’s no doubt the source of a significant tax base.

There are also ancillary businesses wedded to collecting and recycling PET plastic bottles even though the quantities that are actually recycled rather than down cycled into inferior plastic products, are miniscule.

On cost alone this marketing spin means that if we bought all our drinking water in bottles we’d be up for $3000 a year compared to $1.50 if it comes out of the tap.

So what do you get for that extra $2998.50?

You get a story.

You get glorious snow capped mountains and sparkling crystal blue colours. The sounds of clinking ice on glass.

You also get the notion that you’re drinking something better, cleaner, more reliable than tap water for instance. And that you are healthy and fit and that the image of an appealing youthful crowd that pops with vitality will rub off on you.

Same old product. New sensation and status.

That’s the value of advertising.

The reality is vastly different.

At least some of the water sold in bottles comes exactly from the tap and the rest has travelled many dirty carbon emitting kilometres.

And there is an appalling environmental fallout from all that plastic.

So how did this happen?

A University of Sydney talk on Wednesday night organised by the Sydney Environment Institute and hosted by The Fifth Estate took a dive into the murky waters indeed of how yet another sustainability shocker has grown and become hidden in plain sight, so to speak.

Speakers on Wednesday night were Gay Hawkins, professor of cultural studies and social theory at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney, Kane Race, associate professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney and Kylie Yeend is manager education, engagement and partnerships for Sydney Water.

Hawkins and Race are co-authors along with Emily Potter of a book Plastic Water  published by MIT Press based on a massive Australian Research Council study on the topic.

In front of our noses, the speakers said, the ubiquitous plastic bottle of water, which has soothed the thirst of most of us at some time or other, has been eating away at our common amenity.

It’s eroded not just our money, but our sense of safety in the public water supply and replaced it by private brands that have been promoted as somehow superior to tap water. It’s created rubbish that’s in fact an oil industry product, with enormous pollution of our oceans and land. Not to mention sending us further and deeper into seductive dependence on corporate concoctions.

According to Hawkins a huge loss is the notion of water as a publicly owned and enjoyed element, replaced by private water.

It’s an erosion of the unifying power of water as a shared commodity or essential element of life. One that we will collaboratively protect and conserve in times of drought, so amply demonstrated in Australia.

The shift is all so seductive though.

Kane Race showed images of streets in Asia crowded out with stacks of packaged bottled water. And of middle class people walking along the street each carrying their bottle of water. So bottled water as a status symbol. In Australian culture too, where it’s equated with personal self-consciousness of health and fitness.

Environmentally it’s a disaster, we heard.

We know that giant corporate beast Coca-Cola Amatil, which dominates a huge part of the beverage market including water, bitterly fought the introduction of the container deposit scheme in NSW. Even though the scheme is successful in South Australia and so many people were gobsmacked by their nerve.

And even though bottles make up the biggest item by volume of all littering and plastic bottles are continually tossed onto beaches, transport nodes and the sides of highways.

The reality is that PET bottle recycling is a myth, with only a fraction re-used and most of this by child labour in unsafe conditions overseas. The balance is used for downstream inferior plastic use or sent to landfill where PET bottles take 1000 years to decompose.

Yet as Choice magazine this month pointed out beverage companies (AKA Coca-Cola Amatil for the most part) raked in $688 million from the sale of bottled water this year alone.

The speakers said an important tool of the industry is to generate doubt about the existing tap water quality.

The public trust issue is a big concern for Sydney Water which 18 months ago embarked on a program to better understand its customers and rebuild trust in its brand. And useage.

Sydney Water’s Kylie Yeend said this was a good fit with the NSW Premier’s priorities that included, reducing childhood obesity, making healthy normal, “making water your drink” and keeping the environment clean.

Research of some of SW’s 4.86 million found, among other things, that:

  • 40 per cent of people say they don’t’ drink water straight from the tap
  • 20 per cent filter water before drinking
  • 10 per cent just say they drink bottled water exclusively
  • 6 per cent boil water before drinking
  • 2 per cent drink rain water even though they are connected to the water mains
  • 2 per cent say they don’t drink any water at all
A lone unloved looking bubbler, University of Sydney, May, 2016

Bring back the water bubbler

The reality is that you’re often out and about and you get thirsty. You’ve forgotten to bring your own water in a refillable non plastic bottle.

We need to bring back bubblers to public spaces and all our buildings.

The speakers pointed to Manly Council which has re-installed water bubblers as a way to reduce its waste costs, but has done it in such a way as to make the bubbler a positive environmental message.

Planners and designers need consider the simple bubbler wherever possible, and how about councils bring back the old ones in public spaces?

Help us “get off the bottle”.

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  1. The bubblers should also have a tap to refill your own water bottles, any waste should fall into a dog bowl at ground level with the rest going into a nearby garden or tree pit if possible. The drain should be the last resort.