What will it take to kick Singapore's growing multimillion-dollar addiction to bottled water?
Singapore is known the world over for the quality of its tap water. Nonetheless, consumers here still fork out millions of dollars on bottled water every year.
SINGAPORE: The water flowing from Singapore's taps is perfectly safe to drink, but recent research shows that many people still prefer to quench their thirst with bottled water, with demand continuing to grow.
Data from research firm Euromonitor International show that sales of bottled water have been increasing steadily over the years - from S$161.3 million in 2013 to S$179.4 million in 2018. The figure includes sales of all types of bottled water, including still, carbonated, flavoured and what is known as "functional" water, which is enhanced with ingredients such as vitamins.
And this has an impact on the environment, given that most bottled water is sold in single-used plastic containers, very little of which is recycled, according to the Singapore Environment Council.
A study it released in 2018 showed that about 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles - which are commonly used for drinks, sauces and marinades - are used in Singapore each year. This works out to the volume of 94 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
According to statistics from the National Environment Agency, 6 per cent of plastics were recycled in 2017, and 4 per cent in 2018.
The rising trend in consumption of bottled water in Singapore is not a recent phenomenon.
A 2016 CNA story on the multimillion-dollar bottled-water industry showed consumers in Singapore spending about S$134 million on still bottled water in 2015, a 24 per cent increase from five years before.
The 2016 article focused on how demand for still bottled water was growing. It also highlighted how the dominant brands in Singapore were confirmed by F&N and Coca-Cola - the companies behind the most popular varieties here - to be sourced from water supplies in Malaysia.
According to United Nations trade data, most of Singapore's bottled water is imported from Malaysia.
When contacted in March this year, Coca-Cola confirmed that there has been no change in where it sources water for its popular Dasani brand. F&N added to its 2016 statement, saying that the process quoted then was “over-simplified”. It said that its water is a blend of “natural mineral water extracted from deep well and reverse osmosis water” that goes through a “stringent 5-tier filtration process that includes various filters.”
F&N said that its popular Ice Mountain brand of water is sourced and bottled in plants in Peninsular Malaysia.
INCREASED CONSUMPTION BOOSTED BY MOVE AWAY FROM SWEET DRINKS
According to Euromonitor, health conscious consumers are boosting demand for bottled water in Singapore. In its report, the research firm noted that they began to switch to to bottled water from soft drinks, sports drinks and juice, as the drinks were perceived to be sugar-laden.
It added that bottled water is expected to continue its “strong growth”, boosted by this continued switch.
But why not just drink water straight from the tap?
The main reason is convenience, said Shane Snyder, Executive Director of Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) at Nanyang Technological University.
“I believe the average member of the public trusts that Singapore is producing water that’s healthy and safe,” he said, adding that Singapore is world-renowned for its water technologies and contribution to research in the area. “Let’s say you’re out running and you go by a convenience store … it’s a lot easier to just grab a bottle of water, rather than you having to carry a reusable bottle around and having to wash it when it gets dirty.”
“People also tend to prefer their drinking water cold, and it’s easier for them to get a bottle of chilled water quickly from the stores, rather than getting it from the tap, which isn’t as cold.”
The convenience factor also plays out in places such as food courts, said another analyst.
“How many food courts have water fountains?” pointed out Ravi Krishnaswamy, senior vice president of energy and environment at Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific. “If you don’t have water points, what do you expect people to do, especially when low-sugar drinks are being promoted? The alternative is just to buy water.”
This consideration may also outweigh the environmental impact of single-use plastics, with Mr Krishnaswamy also noting that there could still be a lack of awareness among consumers about the environmental impact of not just the plastic waste generated by plastic bottles, but also the carbon footprint of transporting them into Singapore, whether it's from Malaysia or, as in the case of some other popular brands, much further afield.
“While there has been a lot of awareness generated recently over plastic straws, I don’t think people have yet to realise the plastic waste generated from the bottled water is a huge environmental issue,” he said.
WATER FOUNTAINS, MORE EDUCATION CAN HELP ADDRESS THIS
One key solution in addressing this issue, is to make public water fountains more accessible, suggested the two analysts.
This, said Prof Snyder, would help address the “ick factor” of people having to refill their bottles in public toilets.
“One way to really advance the use of tap water would be to have dispensers readily available in public places, preferably if it’s ice cold, and if possible, even warm water,” he said, adding that well-designed water fountains can also play a part.
“We had a water fountain on my university campus in America that was specially designed - it had a very high dispenser and you could put your bottle there. It was very popular, especially if you look at conventional water fountains, where it’s not very easy to put your bottle there to refill it.”
Demand for such sources may be picking up in Singapore, where awareness has accelerated of the environmental damage that can be done by single-use plastics. F&N has launched a water station which it describes as an “environmentally friendly alternative” to disposable bottled water. Apart from dispensing chilled and filtered water to buyers, users also have the option of buying a reusable bottle.
Educating the public would also be helpful, added Prof Snyder, suggesting that it could be more than just raising awareness about the plastic waste issue.
“Bottled water could be sold as high as S$3 a bottle - if you think about the cost of water in your home, that’s a tremendous mark-up,” he said. “So there could be an education component about the wasted money.”
Mr Krishnaswamy also suggested that education start from young, particularly in the schools.
“Students today tend to be much more aware and conscious about such issues,” he said, adding that schools can also consider not selling bottled water to develop the habit from young.
The rise of ground-up initiatives, he added, is also a positive step.
GROUND-UP INITIATIVES HELPING TO CHANGE MINDSETS ABOUT TAP WATER
One such initiative was put together by a group of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) students as their final year project.
The quartet of final-year communications students decided to start a campaign aimed at encouraging people to eschew bottled water in favour of tap water, spurred by the increasing amount of money that is being spent on bottled water and the rising awareness of environmental issues.
“We saw more people using reusable metal straws, and plastic bags aren’t given out in our school anymore,” said Erny Kartolo, one of the four students. “But we realised that there wasn’t enough attention given to plastic bottle waste, when in actual fact, this accounts for a lot of Singapore’s plastic waste."
Their “Drink Wise, Drink Tap” campaign ran from January to March, with Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor praising it as “simple, but brilliant”. Prior to that, the team conducted surveys and focus group discussions to find out how people perceived tap water, and why they chose to buy bottled water.
It appeared, said Ms Kartolo, that it all boiled down to “psychological barriers”, where people are reluctant to drink water from public taps because of how the surroundings appeared.
“This was one of the biggest struggles in our campaign,” she said. “The water from the public toilet tap is completely safe and clean, but if the surroundings are dirty, you don’t want to drink or refill your bottle.”
To prove their point, part of their efforts involved them setting up booths at four events, where they conducted a blind taste test with two identical mason jars: one filled with tap water, and the other with bottled water.
“Out of the hundreds of people who tried the water, most really couldn’t tell the difference, and some guessed wrongly,” said Ms Kartolo. “So I think it’s true about the psychological barriers ... If I tell you this is tap water, you might think it tastes a bit different, but we didn’t tell them, and the majority of them couldn’t tell the difference.”
While the campaign has since ended, Ms Kartolo hopes that their efforts have gone some way in helping to change mindsets among consumers and overcoming this barrier.
Moving forward, the group also hopes that more can be done to help encourage people to make the switch.
For one, they suggested that to encourage more people to drink the tap water from public toilet sinks, NEA and PUB can collaborate on clean toilet campaigns, to assure people about the hygiene of the environment and the cleanliness of the tap water for consumption.
They also suggested that partnerships with eateries be explored, to provide tap water refills.
“Our research found that people trust eateries to provide them with safe drinking water,” said Ms Kartolo. “This would be a great step in getting businesses involved in Singapore’s journey towards sustainability.”
“Tap water is a simple, easy solution for Singaporeans to adopt,” she added. “We want people to realise that there’s really no need for bottled water.”