South Africa’s drought conditions have prompted the launch of a number of packaged drinking water ‘innovations’.
Included among these are bench-top filtering and bottling systems that pre-fill sealed containers, and companies that refill containers with either filtered, treated or non-treated waters (such as water that has been through reverse osmosis and ozonated water), often inside retail outlets.
Most claim to be the equivalent of bottled water when it comes to quality, drought-beaters, and anti-plastic waste.
Are these claims true, or are they simply green-washing?
• Water is water is water NOT
The claim that these systems provide consumers with water of comparable quality to bottled water is false. Let’s unpack why.
Firstly, we need to understand bottled water. There are three types of bottled water in South Africa:
• natural waters (water obtained directly from a natural or drilled underground source, bottled near the source under hygienic conditions); about 70% of all bottled water in South Africa is natural water
• water defined by origin (including spring and mineral water); these account for about 20% of all bottled water in South Africa
• prepared water (water sourced ‘from a tap’ that has undergone antimicrobial treatment as well as treatment that alters the original physical or chemical properties of the water); about 10% of all bottled water in South Africa is prepared water
Then, we need to know how water in South Africa is regulated. Importantly, bottled water is legislated as a ‘food product’ (the name of the category is ‘packaged water’), and is regulated by the Department of Health as such.
This includes meeting stringent quality control, food safety and packaging legislation:
• Adhering to microbiological legislation: Regulations Governing Microbiological Standards for Foodstuffs and related matters, R.692
• Conforming to treatment, labelling and chemical regulations as per R.718
• Conforming labelling legislation as detailed in R.718 and Regulations Relating to Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, R.146
• All food hygienic design and hygienic handling legislation
In contrast, tap water is legislated as ‘drinking water’ and therefore needs to comply with public water supply regulations.
The Department of Health views other waters as follows:
• Bulk water transported in tankers to distribute to rural or urban areas = public water supply and not within the scope of packaged water legislation
• Re-filling into the consumer’s own containers = drinking water not within the scope of packaged water legislation
• Bulk water in large bottles for office coolers = packaged water
• Bench-top treated waters and shop-floor treated waters bottled on site = packaged water
Drinking water and packaged water cannot be compared in terms of quality because they need to comply with different standards and legislation.
Members of the South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) bottle just over 80% of the water available through formal retail and hospitality outlets in South Africa. The standards to which they are required to bottle are amongst the most stringent worldwide.
Asked what scares her most about the claims that ‘water is water is water’, SANBWA Executive Director, Charlotte Metcalf, answered the potential health risks consumers face without being made aware that they even exist.
“Let’s forget for a moment that claiming to deliver the same quality as bottled water when you don’t meet the same set of standards is blatantly misleading to consider the health risks,” she said.
“The quality of municipal water in South Africa is – generally speaking – high but it does vary daily. If you live in Johannesburg, for example, you can check for yourself the fecal contamination of the water in your taps. Rand Water updates its reports on its web site daily.
“I don’t know how often the water sources for these bench top or shop floor systems, the nearest tap, are tested and there’s also no guarantee how often they change the filters they use. If the filter is expensive, who’s to say the suggested change-out cycle hasn’t been stretched.
“Then, because these systems do not operate in a clean room environment, secondary contamination from air poorly sterilised containers and handling is a given. Given that these systems mostly claim to remove chlorine, the water they offer effectively has no defence against the growth of bacteria and other microbiological organisms.
“Removal of chlorine and microorganisms is a far cry from the chemical and microbiological requirements for packaged water. Maybe that’s not a problem in a restaurant, if you are guaranteed that the bottle you ordered is filled to order, but what if it’s the first task of the day? And, who knows how long the bottles on the retail shelves have been standing there? Ideally, this category of water should be offered in a glass or jug, not a closed bottle system mimicking bottled water.
“Plus, in the absence of chlorine, you do need according to South African legislation to disclose data on shelf-life. I’ve yet to see that information shared with consumers.
“Finally, if the system itself and the containers it is refilling are not properly cleaned and sterilised they quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria. In fact, the Grolsch-type closure – I can’t call it a seal because it is not regarded as one by law – is one of the worst offenders as that little rubber washer is notoriously difficult to sterilise.”
• Busting the drought
Importantly, as drought-beaters or water-wise solutions to the water crisis, these systems fail miserably because most of them get their water from the municipal supply and therefore afford no drought relief.
So there you are, in a restaurant ordering water from the establishment’s bench-top filling system (the bottles these use are typically elegant glass with a ‘Grolsch’ like closure) because you want to contribute to the drought effort while reducing the number of plastic bottles going to landfill, but the system is tapping – pun intended – into the very system you wanted to protect.
Or, you are beguiled by the marketing phrases of retail store systems and opt to take along your own containers to be filled but you’re not told the system is connected to the municipal supply via a tap.
Furthermore, there’s all the water wasted when it comes to cleaning these systems and the bottles used. (And you’d better hope they are cleaned really well as they are breeding grounds for bacteria.) All told, your one litre bottle with lunch probably took three litres to produce.
By the way, bottled water production in South Africa has an extremely low water footprint, or ‘water usage’ value. The industry benchmark is 1.8:1, and there are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1.2:1 – 1.4:1.
• Pulverising the plastic
Granted, the reusable ‘Grolsch’ bottle as well as the reusable bottles you utilise at home do prevent you from purchasing a PET bottle every time you want to drink water. But, you know as well as I do, bottles don’t litter, people do. If you recycle that bottle, you reduce its environmental footprint by 25%.
In addition, plastic bottled water bottles aren’t even the biggest culprits in the grander scheme of plastic litter. Bottled water comprises only 8.9% of the total non-beverage market in South Africa and according to PETCO South Africans currently recycle 55% of all PET bottles.
So simply recycle and be sure to encourage those who imbibe carbonated soft drinks, iced teas, flavoured milks, energy drinks and fruit juices to do the same. These packaged beverages are responsible for 96.7% of the waste but we don’t see them being offered ‘on tap’ in restaurants and shops.
So, drought-beater = greenwash; anti-plastic waste = fair claim (if the proprietor has a recycling programme in place for the valves, seals and bags the system utilises and encourages his consumers to recycle their bottles when they reach the end of their lifespan); equivalent quality = complete and utter whitewash.
Consumers are entitled to choice – bottled water itself exists as a packaged beverage alternative to the other packaged beverages on the shelf.
However, in order to exercise that choice, consumers must be fully informed, and right now, they’re being misled, either by blatant untruths or omission, by those offering alternatives to bottled water. Neither is acceptable.