Q&A around COVID and bottled water

Q&A around COVID and bottled water

1. According to BMi’s consumption figures of bottled water were growing at 2,3% in 2016. How has the arrival of Covid-19 impacted the demand for bottled water?

Demand has decreased. Some bottlers, who bottle mainly for the retail trade, did see increases but those who are strongest in the HORECA sector saw demand plummet. Overall, the market has contracted. 

Just as an aside, within just days of South Africa locking down, South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) members proved – once again – that they can be relied upon to step-in and step-up when communities need assistance. The information below was current as of May. More has been distributed since. 

In rural KwaZulu-Natal, Doctors for Life International – supported by local organisations aQuellé, Emseni Farming and Domino Servite School – gave the needy community the means to help curtail the spread of the virus. Hundreds of households under Chief Hlongwa and Chief Ngubane received care packs filled with masks, 500ml sanitiser, 5L aQuellé natural spring water, 6-pack aQuellé flavours and information pamphlets in both English and isiZulu providing information on Covid-19 and the precautions that must be taken to save lives.

aQuellé also donated R500 000 to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund, which is focusing on combating and tracking the deadly virus, caring for the sick and supporting those whose lives are disrupted. Administered through the private sector, it will complement the work already being done by government.

Thirsti Water donated 140 000 bottles of water to the testing teams countrywide, and transported the bottles to the sites where they were most needed, regardless of the province. This donation exceeded R700 000. Talking about his brand’s big commitment, CEO Rob Hoatson said: “The spirit of South Africa will always survive in trying times. We understand the seriousness of this pandemic, and applaud the South African Government for what they’ve done. We at Thirsti just felt that we really needed to do something, we really should do something. At a time like this, it is important that we do what we can where we can.”

AquaBella, too, donated water to keep the testing teams hydrated, some 20 000 bottles initially in the Western Cape, Clover Water donated bottles from its Nestlé Pure Life and Aquartz ranges, Chamonix donated 18 pallets of water in total to the local food scheme in Franschhoek Gift of the Givers for its distribution programmes, and Bené Spring Water partnered with its bottle supplier, Polyoak Packaging, to deliver food hampers – one and a half tons worth – to the local Meals on Wheels Community Services South Africa branch in Walkerville.

Coca-Cola, which owns the Bonaqua and Valpré range of bottled water, contributed to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund, provided product to Gift of the Givers and, through its local bottling partners Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa and Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages, distributed 2L and 1L relief water with food parcels and essential care kits across the country. Coca-Cola’s marketing spend was redirected to a mass communications campaign to share health and safety messages and help people stop the spread of the virus.  This was rolled out on television, point- of-sale, truck backs and on social media. Health and safety messages were also incorporated into packaging for 1.5L and 500ml Bonaqua bottles.

2. What factors are contributing to the (if applicable) lower demand? I would assume it would be a drop in people travelling, cancellation of big events, such as conferences and concerts as well as the closure of restaurants and then the limited trading hours, more people staying at home …  

Unfortunately, all of the above – plus the fact that offices, restaurants and schools closed (and there’s usually bottled water in the fridge) and airlines were grounded (they offer water on board). Online purchases increased, but some online stores put limits on the number of items you could purchase, which kept sales down. There’s also the colder temperature of winter decreasing demand each year. And outdoor activities and sporting events were restricted, and events like as conferences and weddings ceased. This brought on-consumption to a virtual halt.

3. Has the increased reporting on plastic pollution and subsequent heightened awareness of this influenced consumption patterns of bottled water in South Africa?

We don’t have any research to comment authoritatively on this, but my gut-feel is no. However, with the publicity the anti-plastic lobby receives, the need for plastic and the negatives impact of public substitutes has also been highlighted.

Also, it’s one of the myths that people drink bottled water in place of tap water. This is not the case. Industry research in the USA 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 drink. People drink water as an alternative to tea, coffee, milk, carbonated beverages etc. So, if there’s no tap, they’ll find a bottle. If there’s no bottle, they’ll find a tap. 

That said, SANBWA acknowledges that it and its members have a very real duty to reduce their environmental footprint, including water. 

Water Footprint is a concept that evaluates the amount of water needed to produce an item of consumption: for example, the production of 1 kg of beef requires 16 000 litres of water, 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. Bottled water’s is 1.8 litres. Looked at it another way, ‘water usage’ refers to how much water is used to make one finished product; in bottled water’s case, one litre of bottled water. This measure 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 water usage benchmark is 1.8:1. There are plants that achieve ratios of as low as 1.3:1. 

Regarding SANBWA’s environmental stewardship, SANBWA’s environmental stewardship protocols address measures to ensure source sustainability and protection, water usage minimisation, energy efficiency, solid waste minimisation, and support post-consumer recycling initiatives. Further, as an organisation, SANBWA was among the first worldwide to require its members to follow specific recycling guidelines. In this respect, it was advised by PETCO in South Africa (the local plastic industry’s first joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer PET recycling). As such, SANBWA’s members only support PET bottle suppliers which contribute to the PETCO recycling levy; have established a drop-off recycling centre for the public at their bottling facilities and all distribution centres; added the ‘please recycle’ sign on all their labels; and use recycling friendly materials or recycling optimal materials as stipulated in the SANBWA Bottled Water Standard and published on www.petco.co.za/ag3nt/media/set_999699/Petco_Design_Fact_SheetMore recently, SANBWA joined the SA Plastics Pact, launch on January 30 this year, with the intention to change the way plastic products and packaging are designed, used and reused to prevent plastics from ending up in the environment, and sets out some ambitious targets to be met by 2025. (https://sapt.co.za/sa-plastics-pact-a-first-in-africa/).

Finally, the best way to ensure you are being environmentally responsible when consuming bottled water is to look for the SANBWA logo on the bottle. Alternatively, seek out the resin code which must be embossed into the bottle within the ‘recycle’ triangle. Those numbered 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 are most often used for food and beverage packaging in South Africa, are therefore safe to come into contact with your food and beverages, and can be reused and recycled – so please do.

4. Does SANBWA foresee that demand would grow again when consumption patterns have returned to normal?

Yes, definitely with summer arriving and the economy opening up further.

5. Have SANBWA’s members considered different packaging of water (moving from plastic to glass or cans) to offset the negative sentiment toward plastic packaging?

Members are constantly considering different packaging, and take their end-producer responsibility (EPR) very seriously. Members support the PET recycling industry and design packaging to ensure that it is fully recyclable.

However, we are very cognisant that doing it simply to offset the negative sentiment is not the right way to approach it. We must only do so if the alternative to plastic is the best option for the environment, and it is – according to all the latest research – most definitely not.

Consider this:

Over the past few years, numerous independent scientific studies have been conducted to compare the environmental footprint of plastics versus other packaging materials, e.g. glass, paper or biodegradable packaging. Time and again, these life cycle analyses have proven that plastics require less energy, reduce waste and have lower carbon emissions.  Most recently, the CSIR released their findings that confirmed that reusable, plastic shopping bags are the best option for South Africa. https://wasteroadmap.co.za/completed-projects/informing-decisions-on-single-use-plastic-carrier-bags/

After comparing 21 environmental and socio-economic indicators, including water use, land use, global warming, the impacts of pollution, impact on employment and the affordability for consumers, the CSIR confirmed that locally produced plastic shopping bags have the lowest environmental footprint compared to carrier bags made from alternative materials, or even biodegradable bags – provided they that they are re-used.

Even more compelling is the findings of Danish researchers who found that cotton bags need to be re-used 7 100 times to have the same cumulative environmental impact as using classic plastic bags.  For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper shopping bags, for example, only one truck is needed to deliver the same number of plastic shopping bags, thereby further helping to reduce the environmental footprint and the amount of waste generated.https://mybroadband.co.za/news/science/311379-an-inconvenient-truth-banning-plastic-bags-may-do-more-harm-than-good.htmlhttps://www.thisisplastics.com/wp-content/uploads/Environmental-Footprint.jpg    

The findings of studies like these as well as that recently conducted by the Green Alliance must be taken seriously. They highlight that switching to aluminium will generate toxic waste, to glass would generate additional carbon emissions, and to carton will create hundreds of tonnes of low-quality waste. https://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news-analysis/3080124/alternative-materials-no-solution-to-bottled-waters-single-use-plastics-crisis-study-argues

The message is clear: don’t accept alternatives without considering the proverbial whole picture.

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