Campaigners have attacked Britain's £2bn thirst for bottled water as "environmental insanity" after a report showed that tap water in the UK is among the safest and purest in the world.
More than two billion litres of bottled water fly off shop shelves every year and sales are growing at nearly 9 per cent a year - one of the highest growth areas in retail. At an average of 95p per litre, it costs as much as petrol, while the average cost of tap water in the UK is £1 per 1,0000 litres.
Consumption of these products now doubles every five years in Britain and represent 16 per cent of all soft drinks sold in the UK, with Britons on average consuming 37 litres of bottled water a year. Worldwide it is estimated that 154 billion litres of bottled water, generating revenues of £58bn, are now consumed each year - an increase of 57 per cent over five years.
Environmentalists seized on the annual figures from the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) showing that tap water met stringent quality standards in 99.96 per cent of cases in 2005 - up 0.02 per cent on 2004.
Green groups said that the statistics served to highlight the damaging ecological impact of bottled water. The energy cost of producing a billion plastic bottles from by-products of crude oil, transporting the water over hundreds or thousands of miles and then disposing of the containers in landfill sites or incinerators made bottled water one of Britain's most wasteful luxuries, they said.
Vicky Hird, senior food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "People are being sold an incredibly seductive image with bottled water - that it is the key to health and well being. But what is not recognised is the huge cost in wasted resources that bottled water represents compared to the very high-quality water that is sitting in our taps at an fraction of the price to the planet and to our wallets.''
The DWI, a publicly funded agency in charge of monitoring water quality, said in its annual report that it was satisfied that water companies, under fire in parts of the country for abysmal leakage rates at a time of drought, were meeting targets to improve water quality. The 0.04 per cent of water that did not meet all testing criteria was still deemed safe to drink but presented localised problems with iron, nickel and lead levels.
Richard Ehrlich, the wine writer, said yesterday that he had always favoured tap water over bottled water. After carrying out a blind taste test of tap water versus Evian and Volvic, he praised his winning glass of Thames Water as "so pure and neutral it was almost sweet". Urging consumers to follow his lead, he added: "Do you really think that bottled water is purer than the tap water provided by your local water company? Chances are that it is not. The water coming out of your unloved kitchen tap is just as pure, if not purer."
Britain imports about 25 per cent of its bottled water, the vast majority from France. The industry insists that the global figure for imported water is less than 5 per cent. But it amounts to an additional environmental burden caused by a profligate "throwaway" society at a time of global warming, according to campaigners.
One recent study calculated that the bottled water industry in the UK generated annually about 33,200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions through transport - equivalent to the annual energy consumption of 6,000 homes. According to industry figures, Britons consume about 1.5 billion litres of water each year from bottles made out of polyethylene terephthalate or PET - a plastic made out of crude oil extracts.
Despite a reduction of 30 per cent in the amount of PET that goes into each bottle, only about 10 per cent of the bottles are recycled. Most go to landfill, where they take 450 years to break down.
The Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, said the situation in Britain was being replicated across the developed world with bottled water being transported across borders to reach consumers. Janet Larsen, its director of research, said: "Transporting water around the globe involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels and thus emitting greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere. This contrasts starkly with tap water, which is distributed through an energy efficient infrastructure."
While Britons drinkan average of 37 litres per person a year, the UK lags far behind the world's most profligate bottled water consumers. The French drink 141 litres, the Mexicans 169 litres and the Italians have the highest per capita consumption at 184 litres.
Representatives of the industry insisted yesterday that consumers and manufacturers were paying the extra cost of bottled water through its elevated cost. A spokesman for the British Soft Drinks Association said: "Bottled water is a matter of consumer choice - it offers convenience, a choice of taste and composition and the fact that it is unprocessed.
"There are environmental considerations. Recycling is an issue that encompasses manufacturers, consumers and local authorities but those factors are already included in the cost that people are paying for bottled water."
Taking the taste test
Scott Woods 51 Psychotherapist from Islington, London
VOLVIC: Quite nice, not too sharp.
TAP: There's nothing in the taste telling me it's tap.
EVIAN: That's tap.
"In London we are one of the few cities where people actually have to buy water when they are out. We should be putting water dispensers everywhere, especially on the Tube."
Aride Cillia 36 Mother and housewife from Islington, London
EVIAN: That's tap water. It tastes flat and lifeless.
TAP: I think that's Volvic.
VOLVIC: Ah, that's quite similar to the last one.
"I do drink tap water at home but when I'm out I'll buy bottled. I've no concerns about tap water health-wise. Maybe people started using bottled water because they got the idea it's safer but I don't think that's true in this country."
Jason Boon 35 Flower-seller from Regent's Park, London
VOLVIC: Very soft, that's the tap water.
TAP: Could be Volvic, it tastes rougher than the last one.
EVIAN: Ah, that's really smooth, that's Evian definitely.
"I buy bottled water all the time. I believe the advertising that they have minerals and are somehow good for me. Now that I've done this test and couldn't tell the difference, I think I should stop buying the bottled water!"