Sustainable shopping: tap water is best, but what bottle should you drink it from?



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The greenest option might be to get a disposable bottle but never dispose of it.
Shutterstock.com

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University and Simon Lockrey, RMIT University

Shopping can be confusing at the best of times, and trying to find environmentally friendly options makes it even more difficult. Our Sustainable Shopping series asks experts to provide easy eco-friendly guides to purchases big and small. Send us your suggestions for future articles here.


We have many options when it comes to how we drink water, given the large range of consumer products available, and Australia’s high standards of tap water.

But which option is the smartest choice from an environmental perspective?

According to the waste management hierarchy, the best option is one that avoids waste altogether. Recyclable options are less preferable, and landfill disposal the worst of all.

For water bottles, this suggests that keeping and reusing the same bottle is always best. It’s certainly preferable to single-use bottles, even if these are recyclable.




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Of course, it’s hardly revolutionary to point out that single-use plastic bottles are a bad way to drink water on environmental grounds. Ditching bottled water in favour of tap water is a very straightforward decision.

However, choosing what reusable bottle to drink it out of is a far more complex question. This requires us to consider the whole “life cycle” of the bottle.

Cycle of life

Life-cycle assessment is a method that aims to identify all of the potential environmental impacts of a product, from manufacture, to use, to disposal.

A 2012 Italian life-cycle study confirmed that reusable glass or plastic bottles are usually more eco-friendly than single-use PET plastic bottles.

However, it also found that heavy glass bottles have higher environmental impacts than single-use PET bottles if the distance to refill them was more than 150km.

Granted, you’re unlikely ever to find yourself more than 150km from the nearest drinking tap. But this highlights the importance of considering how a product will be used, as well as what it is made of.

What are the reusable options?

Metal bottles are among the most durable, but also require lots of resources to make.
Flickr CC

In 2011, we investigated and compared the life cycles of typical aluminium, steel and polypropylene plastic reusable bottles.

Steel and aluminium options shared the highest environmental impacts from materials and production, due to material and production intensity, combined with the higher mass of the metal bottles, for the same number of uses among the options. The polypropylene bottle performed the best.

Polypropylene bottles are also arguably better suited to our lifestyles. They are lighter and more flexible than glass or metal, making them easier to take to the gym, the office, or out and about.

The flip side of this, however, is that metal and glass bottles may be more robust and last longer, so their impacts may be diluted with prolonged use – as long as you don’t lose them or replace them too soon.

Health considerations are an important factor for many people too, especially in light of new research about the presence of plastic particles in drinking water.

Other considerations aside, is may even be best to simply buy a single-use PET plastic water bottle and then reuse it a bunch of times. They are lighter than most purpose-designed reusable bottles, but still long-lasting. And when they do come to the end of their useful life, they are more easily recycled than many other types of plastic.

Sure, you won’t look very aspirational, but depending on how many uses you get (as you approach the same number of uses as other options), you could be doing your bit for the environment.

Maintaining reusable options

There are a few things to bear in mind to ensure that reusable bottles produce as little waste as possible.

  1. Refill from the tap, as opposed to using water coolers or other bottled water that can come from many kilometres away, requiring packaging and distribution. Unsurprisingly, tap water has the lowest environmental impacts of all the options.

  2. Clean your bottle thoroughly, to keep it hygienic for longer and avoid having to replace grotty bottles. While cleaning does add to the environmental impact, this effect is minor in comparison to the material impacts of buying new bottles – as we have confirmed in the case of reusable coffee cups.




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The verdict

To reduce your environmental impacts of a drink of water, reusing a bottle, whether a designer bottle or a single-use bottle you use time and again, makes the most sense from a life-cycle, waste and litter perspective.

The maintenance of your reusable container is also key, to make sure you get as many uses as you can out of it, even if you create minor additional environmental impacts to do so.

The ConversationUltimately, drinking directly from a tap or water fountain is an even better shout, if you have that option. Apart from the benefit of staying hydrated, you will reduce your impacts on our planet.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Simon Lockrey, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why does some tap water taste weird?



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Which council has Australia’s best-tasting water?
Arthur Chapman/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

Every year Australia’s councils contest the academy awards of the water industry: the Best Tasting Tap Water in Australia. Entrants compete on clarity and colour as well as taste and odour.

This week the NSW/ACT representative will be selected to go on to compete against other state winners in October for the coveted Australian crown. (As in Eurovision, the previous winner hosts the final, so it will be held in Toowoomba, which swept the competition last year with its Mt Kynock Water Treatment Plant vintage.)




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It’s a not-so-serious business (apart from bragging rights and a nice trophy, the Australian winner will go to an international competition in the US next year) but it raises an interesting question. All tap water has its own tang, imparted by the source, the plumbing and any treatments. How do you think the water coming out of your tap will go?

What makes water taste good?

The odour of tap water is strongly linked to its taste. No surprises there – the combination of taste and odour is well established.




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One of the most common complaints about tap water taste and odour involves chlorine, which is an essential disinfectant used around the world. Chlorine might have an offensive smell, but it is a major weapon against pathogens spreading in our water supplies. Areas with very old and corroded pipes might add more chlorine to counter the risk of microbial contamination entering the system.

Chlorine is highly volatile and you might particularly notice this smell when you run a hot shower. If you want to enjoy drinking water without the chlorine taste or smell, boil it slowly for several minutes. That will remove much of the chlorine. (And then put it in a container in the refrigerator to get much more appealing ice-cold water.)

The taste test

The competition, run by the Water Industry Operators Association of Australia, uses “blind” testing, so the judges do not know the source. All samples need to be at room temperature. The testers use a testing wheel to rate attributes including sweet, sour, salty and bitter.


Water Industry Operators Association

The water will also be judged on clarity, colour, odour and “mouthfeel”. Perhaps the most obvious mouthfeel character of water is effervescence or “sparkling bubbles”, something that consumers will pay plenty for in bottles sourced from exotic-sounding locations.

Hard vs soft

These qualities often reflect water’s origins, which affects aspects like its mineral content. Groundwater generally has a higher mineral content, particularly from areas of limestone rich in calcium and magnesium carbonates. This is called “hard” water.




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Water with high levels of hardness may be frustrating when you wash your hands as it can stop a soapy lather forming. Very hard water might also have a salty taste. Hard water can create other issues, such as imparting an unusual flavour in tea and causing a build-up of scale minerals in hot water appliances and water pipes.

The opposite of hard water is “soft” water. This is often from water supplies fed by stored rainfall, which generally contains very dilute sodium chloride (also known as table salt; it’s largely responsible for making seawater salty).

If you live close to the coast and have a tank collecting runoff from your roof you will probably have more salt in your water. You might not actually taste the salt, but you may notice a metallic tang from corrosion of the roof, tank and plumbing triggered by the salt.

Water supplied by rainwater tanks can provide odd tastes and odours. This can be the first sign of a major problem, and you should always investigate the source. Dead animals in the tanks and accumulated vegetation from overhanging trees can be unwelcome tank water quality hazards. It is worth remembering that homes using rainwater tanks often do not treat or disinfect the water before consumption.




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A sulphur taste and odour can also occur in some water supplies. This is often termed “rotten-egg gas”, and is caused by hydrogen sulphide. Similar to chlorine, its odour might be detected when running a hot shower. The source of sulphur can be from the water supply geology or from the decay of organic matter.

More and more of Australia’s water supply is highly treated by the local or regional water industry. We have increasing populations and a possibly drying climate. Some areas have a relatively natural supply of high-quality raw water from very clean catchments and storages. Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney and many locations across Tasmania are fortunate to have very clean and mostly natural water supplies. Other places, like Alice Springs or Perth, rely heavily on treated groundwater.

Desalination has also emerged as a major new water supply source over the last 20 years. It is often used only when lack of rainfall depletes natural water storage, but it is a permanent factor in Perth’s water supply.

It will be a major victory for the Australian water industry if the winning water sample comes from a recycled water supply, particularly if the source includes some component of recycled sewage!


The Conversation


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Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.