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By JOHN NAISH
The Daily Mail
A plastic bottle dumped in the sea, polluting the planet and marine life for centuries . . . also poisoning all who drink the water with plastic microparticles now found in every human body.
It’s the greatest consumer con of all — a mass addiction to drinking ‘healthy’ water from plastic bottles that are destroying our planet … and now polluting our bodies. Last year more than £3.1 billion ($4.0 billion) was spent on buying 4,000 million litres of bottled water. Experts predict we will be buying nearly 10 per cent more bottled water next year and every year after. And new research has confirmed for the first time that our bodies are becoming ‘polluted’ with plastic.
Mankind’s love affair with plastic bottles filled with water represents the pinnacle of human irrationality.
Despite rising awareness of the global environmental plastics disaster we have created, the trend for consuming vast amounts of an expensive product we don’t need (what’s wrong with tap water?) and then discarding the container, is growing rapidly.
Last year in the UK we spent more than £3.1 billion ($4 billion) buying nearly 4,000 million litres of the stuff. That’s 100 times more than we did in 1980. And new research has confirmed for the first time that our bodies are becoming ‘polluted’ with plastic.
It seems we can no longer venture out without clutching a bottle to protect ourselves against imminent dehydration. And experts predict we will be buying nearly 10 per cent more bottled water next year, and every year, for the foreseeable future.
All of this is despite a welter of warnings about the impact on the planet — and now on our health. As the Mail revealed yesterday, new research has confirmed for the first time that our bodies are becoming ‘polluted’ with plastic. We are eating, drinking and inhaling microplastic particles, some of which are derived from plastic bottles.
So how and where did the madness begin — and why does it persist?
This modern plague had beguilingly innocent beginnings at a time when sources of clean drinking water were limited. The first documented example of a bottled non-alcoholic drink being sold was in Boston in the United States in the 1760s, when a company called Jackson’s Spa started selling mineral water for ‘therapeutic’ uses.
Other companies followed suit and a market was born.
But the glass bottles used shared a problem: the metal caps imparted a foul taste to the content. In 1917, American inventor Webster Byron Baker made the first plastic bottle cap, by heating Celluloid and crimping it around the mouth of a bottle.
It was the start of the plastics revolution that really took off in 1941 when British chemists at the Calico Printers’ Association who were researching a new textile product, developed a form of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Within 25 years, scientists working for the American chemical giant Du Pont had found a way of making PET strong enough to contain carbonated (fizzy) drinks without bursting. It was cheap, lighter than glass and virtually unbreakable.
In 1978, Coca-Cola introduced the two-litre PET plastic bottle, which rapidly became the standard bottle material for fizzy drinks in all sizes. But there was a product that was far cheaper to make than sugary pop, and thus infinitely more profitable — fizzy water.
The French spotted the potential and first perfected the trick of selling H20 at hugely marked-up prices — by marketing it as a ‘natural’ miracle — initially in a green glass bottle. In 1977, a £4 million advertising campaign across America used Orson Welles to trumpet how ‘Deep below the plains of southern France, in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, Nature herself adds life to the icy waters of a single spring: Perrier’.
Suddenly, Perrier was the only drink to be seen sipping. Sales in the U.S. increased from 2.5 million bottles to more than 75 million bottles by the end of the following year — helped by the burgeoning craze for aerobics and healthy living — followed by rising sales in Europe.
In 1985, Time magazine declared that ‘water snobbery has replaced wine snobbery as the latest noon-hour recreation. People order their eau by brand name, as they once did Scotch’.
Within five years these two agents of the environmental apocalypse — water and plastic bottles — were being combined, and the big brands jumped aboard. PepsiCo launched Aquafina in 1994, Coca-Cola’s Dasani emerged in 1999, and Nestlé’s Pure Life in 2002.
No matter that nearly a quarter of the bottled water being sold in America was actually filtered tapwater, the marketing departments were in hyperdrive, creating a liquid gold-rush.
Any environmental worries were squashed underfoot. For example in 2008, in a masterpiece of ‘greenwashing’, Nestle declared that: ‘Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.’
It added: ‘Most water bottles avoid landfill sites and are recycled.’
Such claims were vigorously challenged by environmental groups, but to no effect.
Over the past two decades, bottled water has become the fastest-growing drinks market in the world. The global market was valued at £120 billion in 2013 and is expected to reach £215 billion by 2020.
Here in the UK we use about 38.5 million plastic bottles every day, driven largely by the bottled water craze, although other fizzy drinks and juice in plastic containers are a factor, too. And rather than being recycled, more than 15 million of these bottles are, each day, either incinerated, dumped in landfill or discarded on the land or seas where we know they can enter the human food chain via contamination of marine life.
It is ironic that a product initially marketed as a boost to health has, through its association with plastic, become a threat to health. Even before the new findings by scientists at the Medical University of Vienna were published this week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had announced a review into the potential risks of plastic in drinking water.
This followed an analysis of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands which concluded that more than 90 per cent contained potentially harmful microplastic particles.
Yet still we buy the stuff, proof that the power of marketing can trump the concerns of world-renowned scientists. According to Stephanie Cote, an environmental scientist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, bottled water is positioned as the ‘elixir of youth’, with which we can salve our instinctive fear of ageing and death.
It might sound far-fetched but in her study, published earlier this year, she cites a 2013 Evian marketing campaign in which people are seen walking past a window and seeing themselves as babies in the reflection. Nestlé, meanwhile, used the phrase ‘Drink Better. Live Better’ in its Pure Life campaigns.
The peddlers of bottled-water are also shameless in their use of pristine shots of snowy mountains and glacial lakes, implying a lack of pollution and ignoring the evidence of the harm that their products wreak on people and the environment.
Other research has shown young people are influenced by advertising that associate bottled water with ultimate convenience — so convenient that they ignore the alarming reality, such as the fact that research shows 90 per cent of teenagers have gender-bending chemicals from plastic in their bodies.
If ever there was a time to take stock, then it’s now. But be in no doubt, there is a long way to go before we kick this expensive, pointless and lethal habit.