Bottled Water Myths

One of the peculiarities of consumer behaviour is that they are quite happy to consume many foodstuffs and other beverages – yoghurt, milk, fruit juice, for example – that are packed in plastic but are easily influenced by one of the main arguments used against bottled water, that is that the bottles themselves pose a danger to human health.

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

This has given rise to several urban legends or bottled water myths. Read on to discover why they are blatantly ‘just not true’.

Myth 1: Bottled water versus tap water

One of the biggest mistakes is assuming that people drink bottled water in place of tap water, which is not the case. Industry research in the 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.

If you doubt this, conduct your own research in one of South Africa’s convenience stores on a petrol forecourt. Ask shoppers who buy bottled water what they would do if they couldn’t find bottled water in the refrigeration unit: would they walk out without purchasing anything and look for a tap or would they select another bottled beverage.

With the recent rise in obesity and diabetes rates, any efforts to discourage people from drinking water are not in the public’s interest.

Also consider a study by Harris Poll, which found that 93% of Americans prefer bottled water over all other beverages. And, while this is not an unexpected or new trend, the fact that these same Americans want bottled water ‘available everywhere drinks are sold’ is proof that consumers have accepted bottled water as an alternative to other packaged beverages and no longer regard it as competing with the tap.

SANBWA has always maintained that bottled water does not compete against tap water, but is a legitimate addition to the retailer’s shelf of packaged beverages because it improves the range of options available for consumers.

American consumers have taken this on board and, while there’s no similar research locally, anecdotal evidence is that South Africans, too, have bought into the idea that – if they are being offered other packaged beverages – they should have the option to choose water ahead of sugary carbonated and energy drinks, iced teas, flavoured milks, and so on.

Myth 2: Bottled water is not necessarily pure

Worldwide there is regular research into the ‘purity’ of bottled water. Much of this research is scientifically unsound, like the often-quoted Natural Resources Defense Council’s 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 far from ‘recently tested’ – the figures are from a 1999 NRDC report that has been thoroughly debunked as junk science.

Locally, about 90% 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 programs)
  • 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 ketchup, peanut butter, soft drinks, and juices to beer, wine and spirits, yet no-one discourages people from consuming of any of these products.

PET is approved as safe for food and beverage contact by the FDA and similar regulatory agencies throughout the world, and has been for over 30 years. 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 Report (ILSI). (Source: ‘Packaging Materials 1. Polyethylene Terephthalate PET for Food Packaging Applications’ (2000).)

Myth 4: The bottles are responsible for much of the marine pollution

Unfortunately, plastic is responsible for the lion’s share of marine pollution. In fact, a 2020 study by a research team from UCT showed that plastic items, including foamed plastics and cigarette butts, accounted for 92% to 99% of litter items by number, and 85% to 94% by mass.

However, bottlers and their suppliers are not the culprits, intentionally or inadvertently discarding plastic waste. They alone shouldn’t be held culpable for it, nor responsible for its remediation. If we want to wisely address such issues, we would do well to be guided by the profound observation of Confucius, a 6th Century Chinese philosopher, who said: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

Sadly, those who should know better, who should take responsibility for educating and informing the world’s citizens – the media, opinionmakers, thought leaders – often don’t.

For example, a campaign launched in 2019 by the South African arm of a well-respected international non-governmental organisation working in the field of the wilderness preservation and the reduction of human impact on the environment claimed that only 16% of plastics in South Africa are recycled.

But, for 2018, Plastics|SA reported that 46.3% of all plastic in South Africa is recycled, while PETCO’s post-consumer recycling rate for PET was 62% in 2019. That’s math that just doesn’t add up and, adding insult to injury, when asked, the NGO refused to disclose the source of that 16%. Plastics|SA and PETCO’s figures are, however, audited and available for scrutiny.

The same campaign also ranked water bottles in 4th position on its Top 10 list of South Africa’s plastics offenders. However, according to BMi Research, the non-alcoholic beverage market in 2018 excluding dairy amounted to 5 754.1-million litres while the bottled water market accounted for just 596.9-million litres.

How an industry that bottles less water in a year than the City of Cape Town used a day at the height of the Day Zero campaign manages to make the Top 10 Plastic Offenders list but that which packages 5 668,7-billion litres of fizzy drinks, iced teas and energy drinks doesn’t is beyond comprehension.

If you’re concerned about marine litter, remember to play your parts in reducing it, while on holiday on the beach as well as everyday:

  • Be an educated consumer – dispose of your waste in responsible manner so that it doesn’t end up in the ocean.
  • Reduce your use of unnecessary single-use plastics by choosing reusable items, carry a shopping bag, use a reusable coffee cup and purchase less food wrapped in unnecessary plastics.
  • Sort and recycle your plastics – recycled plastic means less plastic being produced and entering the environment. It seems obvious, but we could do a better job of it.
  • Take on and/or support direct action – participate in a local recycling programmes or beach cleanups. Support international campaigns that help remove plastic directly from the environment and prevent it becoming marine litter.

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 in that it has an extremely low ‘water usage’ factor.

The term ‘water usage’ refers to how much water is used (volume) to make a finished product. This measure – sometimes called ‘water footprint’- includes both direct and indirect water usage (in the bottled water industry, that would be water for rinsing and sanitising bottles, plant and general cleaning and sanitation, vehicle washing, floor washing, toilets etc.) and includes water from boreholes and municipal source.

The South African industry benchmark is 1.8:1, but there are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1.3:1 – 1.4:1 by recycling their bottle rinse water.

According to BMI Research, the bottled water industry sold 596.9 million litres in South Africa in 2018. Given a water usage ratio of 1.8:1, the industry used 1 074.4 million litres in total, or 1 074 400 000 litres. This is equivalent to 34 litres/second.

However, consider that a golf course uses 1 litre/second per hole (or 18 litres/second for an 18 hole golf course). The bottled water industry’s use is equivalent to that used by two golf courses. And, this usage is also equivalent to that of a 68 hectare export fruit farm, or irrigating 50 hectares of lucerne; both for a year. Also, ‘manufacturing’ 1kg of beef takes 16 000 litres of water, 1kg of maize 900 litres and 1 cup of coffee 140 litres. Remember that it takes only 1.8 litres of water to ‘make’ 1 litre of bottled water, equivalent to 1kg.

Myth 6: Bottled water bottles are not reusable or recyclable

It is a mistake to regard plastic water bottles as single-use. Like other containers – plastic or otherwise – you use every day in your home, bottled water bottles are reusable and recyclable – they are not single-use products.

And, by recycling them after reusing them, you reduce their environmental footprint. In fact, according to PETCO, if designed for recyclability, 100% of the PET bottle is able to enter the recycling stream and be recycled.

To reuse your plastic containers including bottles, consider these tips:

  • Like other food or beverage containers, PET plastic water bottles can be re-used if you take steps to prevent the growth of bacteria. These bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments; that is, in virtually any beverage container under the right conditions. Wash all your containers, not just PET bottles, with hot soapy water and dry thoroughly between each use.
  • When looking for a bottle for long term use, pay attention to the design of it and its closure. Make certain you can easily get into all ‘nooks and crannies’ to be able to clean it properly.

Myth 7: The bottled water industry causes droughts.

During the Day Zero period in Cape Town, many laid the blame for the drought at bottlers of bottled water and called for the industry to be banned, or put under State control. Their calls ignored the fact that – at that time – the bottled water market accounted for just 543.7-million litres a year.

This was equivalent to the City of Cape Town’s daily target under Day Zero conditions.

By the way, the fizzy drink, iced teas and energy drink market – at that time – accounted for 5 668,7‑billion litres a year, more than 10 times that of the bottled water industry.


  • The water sources of SANBWA members nationwide (90% of which are bottled from underground sources, that is, groundwater as opposed to surface water) must be audited to ensure long-term sustainability prior to membership being granted.
  • Groundwater is strongly buffered against drought influence. Recharge, or aquifer renewal, is replenished at between 5% and 20% a year depending on the underlying geology and topography.
  • No water from any of these groundwater sources would naturally enter the municipal system via rivers and dams. Bottled water originates from sources licenced to private entities by the Department of Water & Sanitation specifically for the use of the water for commercial purposes (bottling water). The volumes extracted are monitored against the licensed limit.