Surprise! Singapore is world's top consumer of bottled water, despite potable tap water

Plastic bottles, mostly made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, make up 5.5 per cent of global plastic production.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

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SINGAPORE — People in Singapore consume the most bottled water and spend the most on it per capita, far more than any other country, a recent report has found.

Published on March 16, a report by think-tank United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health analysed the global market for bottled water and traced the impact of the industry on the UN's sustainable development goals.

In the report, Singapore was ranked first, and Australia second, in terms of global annual revenue and volume of water sold per capita in 2021. Bottled water is defined in the report as water packaged in any type of container — bottles, water dispensers, sachets, for both individual and household use.

According to the report, each person in Singapore spent US$1,348 (S$1,800) on bottled water and consumed 1,129 litres of bottled water in 2021, compared with second-placed Australians, who spent US$386 and consumed 504 litres a person.

The United States, Indonesia and Malaysia ranked significantly lower in both per capita bottled water consumption and revenue compared with Singapore.

National water agency PUB said that tap water here is "perfectly safe to drink and entirely wholesome straight from the tap".

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"The quality of tap water complies with the Singapore Food Agency's Environmental Public Health (Water Suitable for Drinking) (2019) regulations, and is well within the World Health Organisation's (WHO) guidelines for drinking water quality," a PUB spokesman said.

"Every year, PUB conducts more than 500,000 tests for more than 300 water quality parameters, which exceeds the more than 100 parameters listed by WHO and other international drinking water guidelines."

Experts told The Straits Times that reasons such as convenience, availability and affordability may explain why Singapore is a top consumer of bottled water.

Dr Corinne Ong and Dr Maki Nakajima, research fellows at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy's Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) at the National University of Singapore, said that high consumption of bottled water could be because of the prevalence and affordability of the commodity.

"In Singapore, bottled water is relatively affordable and widely accessible in supermarkets.

"In an affluent society, the willingness to pay for water among consumers is likely to be higher," they said in a joint reply to ST.

Citing an IES study in 2019, Dr Ong and Dr Nakajima also said that most households in Singapore are open to drinking tap water, boiled or unboiled, adding that only three per cent of the 1,000 households surveyed actually consumed bottled water.

"This suggests that concerns over the tap water's quality is very likely not the issue explaining bottled water consumption trends in Singapore," they said.

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Professor Shane Snyder, executive director of Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute, pointed out that people here are consuming fewer sugary drinks now. "People are choosing to purchase bottled water instead of canned drinks at hawker centres and coffee shops, both of which are places where tap water is not easily accessible," he said.

The UN think-tank's report also said that plastic used by the bottled water industry largely contributes to plastic pollution.

Plastic bottles, mostly made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), make up 5.5 per cent of global plastic production. In 2021, the average amount of PET bottle waste exceeded 25 million tonnes.

However, Prof Snyder said that the bottles in which water is generally sold are relatively easy to recycle, and the focus should be on better recycling programmes rather than condemnation of bottled goods. 

PHOTO: The Straits Times

"The fact remains, bottled water is convenient and often desired cold due to the relatively hot climate in Singapore. Regardless of whether it is from the tap or bottled, water is extremely healthy and necessary for life," he said.

By country, the largest market for bottled water is the US, with a total revenue of US$64 billion, followed by China at US$50 billion, and Indonesia at US$22 billion. Singapore ranks sixth, with bottled water revenue of approximately US$7.5 billion.

The disparity between countries in consumption is due to varying perceptions of bottled water, the report said.

Some countries, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, perceive bottled water as healthier and tastier than tap water, and these countries typically have a reliable and good-quality public drinking water supply, according to the report.

In other countries, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, the bottled-water market develops primarily because of the absence of potable public water supply, and limited infrastructure for water delivery.

"Rural areas cannot access water as easily as other areas, there are bureaucratic and logistical challenges that come with providing filtered water for all, and sometimes, it is just not feasible to build a complete filtration system," said Prof Snyder, who has spent time in countries like Indonesia and Nepal to help improve access to clean water.

Dr Ong and Dr Nakijima said: "Singaporeans are unlikely to be turning to bottled water for their primary water source, despite its prevalence.

"I think this itself would speak to the importance of a good-quality, trusted public water system as an important and available alternative to excessive bottled water consumption."

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.