The Australian’s unquenchable thirst for the world’s most expensive water

Australia has the most expensive bottled water on the planet, but that hasn’t quenched the consumer’s thirst for something people can get for free.

A new United Nations report shows that Australians spent an average of around $580 buying 504 liters of bottled water in 2021.

It is the second highest consumption rate in the world, per capita, after Singapore.

Australians also pay a lot more than anyone else.

The report says that bottled water costs an average of about $5.40 per unit in Australia – almost twice as much as it costs in North America and Europe, and about four times as much as it charges in Asia and Africa.

However, the Australian market is alive and well, with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health saying that Australia is the 10th fastest growing national market in the world.

So why would Australians be willing to pay such a high price for a product that beats the cost of tap water, which Sydney Water says comes in at less than a cent a liter?

Why continue to buy a product that generates huge streams of fossil fuel-derived waste that gets recycled many times over?

The primary answer is convenience, says the Australian Beverage Council, which represents producers of non-alcoholic beverages in the country including water.

“We buy it when we’re pretty much on our way,” a spokeswoman for the council told the AAP.

Bottled water producers know this because sales fell off a cliff during the COVID lockdowns, when everyone was staying at home. The same cannot be said for alcohol and other packaged beverages.

But there are all indications that sales have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

The board says the desire to do the easy and grab water on the go has created a market that last year generated $650 million in revenue with a long-term growth rate of about 16 percent annually.

That means 16 percent more bottles to handle each year, 16 percent more energy to make new bottles or recycle existing ones and 16 percent more truck miles to go around the country.

The Board could not provide any conclusive explanations for the high commercial water prices in Australia and described it as a “retail issue”.

But she also noted that Australia’s relatively small population could have something to do with it, along with the 10-cent refund that was included in the price of bottled drinks to fund container deposit schemes.

“Maybe its purchasing power… a larger population usually goes hand in hand with better purchasing power,” the spokeswoman said.

“The other thing I can say is that because Australians tend to drink water on the go, they often buy in convenience stores where prices may not be as low as you can get in larger retail environments.”

Professor Stewart Kahn is a water quality expert from the University of New South Wales and says the world would be drowning in plastic waste without an overall change in global plastic consumption.

He says most Australians can get very good, safe drinking water straight from the tap and “there is no public health or water quality advantage in drinking bottled water”.

He also says container deposit schemes will never cancel out the damage caused by the industry’s waste stream.

The AAP was unable to obtain any national data on the gap between the number of water bottles sold in Australia and the number of water bottles recovered for recycling through industry-funded government container deposit schemes.

Pip Kiernan, president of Clean Up Australia, says Australians need to remember that 90 per cent of the cost of a water bottle can be traced back to the bowl, lid and label.

“You can save all that money by remembering your own reusable bottle and drinking tap water or filling up public drinking water springs.”

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