The origins of bottle water can be traced back to the European health spas of the 1700s, which began the practice of giving out some of their healthy waters for patrons to take with them. Following in the logic of supply and demand, the spas began to charge a fee for the pleasure of drinking their waters, creating some of the longest lasting contemporary bottled water purveyors: Evian, San Pellegrino, Perrier, and Vittel, along with several others. These companies spawned an entire industry and by the early 20th century, Europe was exporting bottled water world-wide.
From these humble origins, the European bottled water market grew to represent a $39.3 billion segment of the market. Individual European countries often top the list of consumers with 4 of the 10 largest bottled water markets and 13 of the 20 top per capita volume of bottled water consumption. Although some countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, purchase a high volume of sparkling water which can be categorized separately from still water, the majority of the market share is still comprised of natural water. This begs the question whether bottled water is simply a trend, as in the United States, or a necessity.
Does this mean that bottled water is less environmentally harmful in Europe than in the U.S.? Not at all. The fact is that many European countries often have pre-existing recycling infrastructure in place and recycling is more ingrained in the habits of consumers. Additionally, the distance that bottled water has to travel to reach its final destination is unaccounted for in this article, but an important aspect of this issue. Tap water from a reusable container is the most environmentally conscious choice, but as water quality is variable and based on location the best choice is to get information before drinking tap water.
Beneath the calm shores of European bodies of water, lies a history of industrialization, pollution, and pesticide usage that calls water quality into question. Following scrutiny in the 1960s and 70s, the quality of European tap water became the focus of E.U. and national policies, with countries such as Germany taking the lead in cleaning some of the remnants of industrial and agricultural pollution. However, not all countries have adopted strict guidelines to protect their water sources and many Eastern European countries lack adequate monitoring and compliance mechanisms.
PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, is the most commonly used material for water bottles with 82.4% of water bottle packages made from it. Some plus sides of PET is that it can be recycled and reused indefinitely, but the most problematic aspect of bottled water is the disposal of the empty bottle. The materials cycle encompassing the production, use, and disposal of the product is often unaccounted for when considering the environmental impact of products. The American case against bottled water is mainly contingent upon the lack of adequate recycling and fact that most bottled water containers wind up in landfills after use. The case in most European countries is often different, as there is a greater emphasis on recycling than currently in place in the U.S.
Tap water in a reusable container, when safe and available, is the best choice regardless of where you live. The key is to inform yourself about water quality in the area whether at home or traveling and unsure of the quality of tap water. Usually countries in Western Europe have good quality tap water, but be aware that the quality in Eastern Europe is often lower. If buying bottled water then try to buy as local as possible and find out where to recycle the used bottle. This will ensure the least harmful environmental impact, while giving you the ability to choose the best option for the area.
Leading image: Medicine or water? “Cures Gout, Stomach, Urine, Bladder and Kidney Ailments”, according to this German advertisement.
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