Article The changing value of money

Britain’s quest for free tap water

Quenching our thirst: to tap or not to tap?

Ever wondered what the fastest growing drinks market in the world is? Bottled water. Britain consumes 3 billion litres of it per year. With an industry worth an estimated £1.7bn a year in the UK alone, it is perhaps unsurprising that a bottle of water retails for 500 to 1000 times the price of tap water. But why do we pay for something that is practically free? Do we drink more bottled water because we’re told it is good for us? Is it healthier, more fashionable, or just more easily available in public? And can we really taste the difference?

Eight cups, really?

Let’s start with the official advice on drinking water, regardless of whether it comes from a bottle or tap. The NHS holds on to the good old rule of eight cups per day and points to the European Food Safety Authority, who recommends that women should drink about 1.6 litres of fluid and men 2 litres daily.

If you drink too much you pee it out. If you drink too little you get thirsty and pee less. It’s all exquisitely well-controlled in the same way that your intake of oxygen is well-controlled.

However, this popular view is increasingly criticised by doctors, researchers and science busters who believe that we don’t need to worry about exactly what that total daily requirement is because our bodies will sort it all out for us. TV doctor Chris van Tulleken told the BBC last year: “The great thing is that […] if you drink too much you pee it out. If you drink too little you get thirsty and pee less. It’s all exquisitely well-controlled in the same way that your intake of oxygen is well-controlled. Saying that you should drink more water than your body asks for is like saying that you should consciously breathe more often than you feel like because if a little oxygen is good for you then more must be better.”

Surrounded by industry-sponsored studies and conflicting advice, it is perhaps no wonder that many of us take the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach by drinking extra water when we can. The question then becomes: should we pay for it?

‘Give me tap’ on the go

Edwin Broni-Mensah doesn’t think so. He was a Maths PhD student with a desire to get a six pack. His fitness regime prescribed him to drink four or five litres of water a day, but he struggled to get it for free when he was out and about. Fast-forward a few years and he has his social enterprise GiveMeTap up and running in over 30 cities, with the biggest presence in Manchester and London.

The concept is simple: people buy a reusable stainless steel bottle from the online shop and get free tap water at every cafe that signed up to the scheme, without funny looks or the obligation to buy anything. A free mobile app and bright blue window stickers point users to their nearest ‘tap’ point. And for every bottle sold, GiveMeTap promises to provide free water for life to a person in rural Ghana, where both Broni-Mensah’s parents are from.

The people who bring their own reusable bottle generally aren’t the people who buy bottled water anyway

So far, the social entrepreneur has convinced 570 shops and cafes to join the scheme. Initially he was often turned away by cafe owners for fear of losing valuable business, but a growing number now tell him the opposite: that the scheme actually gains them new customers. “The people who bring their own reusable bottle out with them generally aren’t the people who buy bottled water anyway”, says Broni-Mensah. “It doesn’t cannibalise sales but instead brings people into places where they wouldn’t otherwise come.”

Chains like Pizza Hut and B&Q have come on board, as well as corporates like Deloitte, who bought bottles for their employees and managed to cut the plastic waste in their offices by 20 per cent as a result. GiveMeTap’s bottle sales have jumped from 4,000 in the first two years to 21,000 in the last twelve months, but Broni-Mensah is most proud of the impact he is making abroad. “When people buy a bottle, they help themselves to get water, as well as someone else. Our local NGO partners have just drilled the fifth well at our projects in Ghana. It is not just about water, but about a shared vision of how the world could be.”

What’s in the water?

Part of the argument for bottled water is based on claims about the safety of what comes out of the tap. Unsurprisingly, the drinking water industry body Water UK reassures us: “In the UK our drinking water is of the highest standard, at a record level of quality and among the best in the world. We can turn on our taps with the certainty of a safe, clean and refreshing supply.”

Buckinghamshire City Council conducted its own water survey in 2005, comparing various types of bottled water with tap water in the area. In its conclusion, it states that tap water meets all the safety standards and is ‘purer’ than some bottled water: “Are consumers actually paying considerable sums for WATER when they buy bottled products? OR Are they buying into the image of PURITY? If they are actually buying the latter these results show they should be paying a fraction of these prices for tap water!” (emphasis in original).

In Britain, 10 per cent of the population is currently supplied with fluoridated tap water

But activists’ concerns are not just about what gets filtered out of the water, but also about what gets added in. In March this year, a call for mass fluoridation of tap water made headlines in the UK. The NHS presented a Public Health England study which showed that adding fluoride to tap water promotes dental health in children. It stated that there were 15 per cent fewer five-year-olds and 11 per cent fewer 12-year-olds with tooth decay in fluoridated areas than non-fluoridated areas.

In Britain, 10 per cent of the population is currently supplied with fluoridated tap water. The British Fluoridation Society has been promoting fluoridation since 1969 as a measure to improve dental health. In its 2012 report it lists the 25 countries where artificial fluoridation of tap water exists, including the UK, USA, Brazil, Chile and Australia. Noticeably, most of Europe does not add fluoride to its water, although no EU country has officially banned it and some countries add fluoride to salt instead.

Opponents of the practice warn that the effects of long-term fluoride intake can be harmful and are not well-enough researched. The US-based Fluoride Action Network criticises the claim that fluoridation is the reason for decline in tooth decay rates, by arguing that tooth decay rates have decreased in Europe as much as they have in the United States over the past fifty years.

A matter of taste – the experiment

When I first moved to the UK, I used to complain about the fact that the tap water had much more of a chloride taste than in my home country of the Netherlands. And in fact, whenever I get Dutch visitors they often say they dislike the tap water here. Just recently, I stayed in a country where the tap water was not drinkable and I was shocked by the amount of plastic bottles I collected in a few weeks. I had a new-found appreciation of tap water when I came back, and decided to put my taste buds to the test.

For the samples, I walked into a local petrol station en route to home and bought the two different brands of still water available. The first was a 750ml bottle of Buxton Still Natural Mineral Water for £1.15 (or £0.15 per 100ml), which is ‘bottled at source’ by Nestlé. The bottle states: “5,000 years ago this mineral water fell as rain” and pictures a rolling green hill with a sign which reads ‘From the Peak District’.

The second one was a bottle of 500ml Still Natural Mineral Water from Deli2Go, which is ‘bottled at source’ in Radnor Hills, Wales, costs £0.49 (or almost £0.10 per 100ml) and was placed on the lower shelf.

I also used a 2 litre bottle of Still Scottish Mountain Water by Sainsbury’s for £0.45 (£0.02 per 100ml) that a friend of mine had bought to empty in the sink and fill with vodka ahead of his trip to Glastonbury Festival, where glass is banned. Incidentally, the festival recently announced it wants to cut down on the use of plastic water bottles on the site by offering stainless steel bottles and installing 400 water taps.

Anyway, back to the test. Five tasters sampled the bottled and tap water from identical glasses. They sampled twice: first at room temperature and the next morning chilled from the fridge. Each time, I asked them to say which one they thought was tap water and which one they liked best. At room temperature, all but one taster could identify the tap water correctly. From the fridge, all tasters picked the right one. When one of the testers mixed up the glasses and let me try, I managed to pick the tap water both times as well.

More interesting was the preference and quality assumption of the bottled waters. The samples ranged in price from £0.02 to £0.15 per 100ml, and chilled, only one taster chose the most expensive Buxton water as the nicest. At room temperature, three tasters preferred the Buxton one. Interestingly, when I told one of the samplers that “any or none” of the glasses could contain tap water, he identified two glasses as tap: both the actual tap water one and the Deli2Go water, which three of the other samplers had identified as ‘the best’ chilled.

Although by no means scientific, this little experiment taught me a few things. Yes, I identified the tap water, but especially chilled, I didn’t mind the difference so much. A permanent jug in the fridge will do the job just fine. When on the go without a reusable bottle, I am not tempted by expensive packaging as price difference in my experience doesn’t equal ‘nicer’ tasting bottled water. But ultimately, it is images of mountains of plastic waste that convince me to abandon bottles in favour of the tap where I can.

“We need to have the debate about plastic bottles much the same as we had it about plastic bags”

Banning the bottle

One day, the choice might be made for us. With only one in five plastic bottles recycled in the UK, some 38 million plastic bottles end up in ever-growing landfills every day. Last month, the UN and others called upon companies to start considering and disclosing their plastic footprint just as they do for carbon, water and forestry.

Broni-Mensah told me about his recent launch in San Francisco, where the city council voted to ban the sale of most bottled water on city property, in parks and at events. Other cities have launched similar initiatives. The town of Concord in Massachusetts, USA banned the sale of bottled water in units smaller than one litre. “We need to have the debate about plastic bottles much the same as we had it about plastic bags”, says Broni-Mensah. “The reusability movement is only just gaining momentum.”

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