Bottled Water

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 29 bottled water brands.

We also look at packaging and water scarcity, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Harrogate Spring and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying bottled water:

  • Is it a glass bottle? Glass bottles are a better choice than plastic ones in many respects. They require less fossil fuel, raw minerals and water for production. They are more frequently recycled and more easily recyclable. Opt for a glass bottle, if buying bottled water.

  • Is it a recycled plastic bottle? The plastic in our oceans could circle the planet 400 times. It is threatening marine ecosystems and contributing to climate change. If you are going to buy a plastic bottled, buy one with a high recycled content. 

Best Buys

We don't recommend that you buy bottled water due to the issues around plastic pollution. Instead you should drink tap water. 

If you do have to buy bottled water, we recommend the brands whose sales fund clean water projects or use glass bottles.

Belu is best and is available to buy in bulk in recycled-content glass bottles.

Co-op Fairbourne Springs is the best widely available brand but is only sold in plastic bottles.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying bottled water:

  • Is the water shipped from overseas? There is no reason at all to be drinking water shipped from France - or in a more extreme example Fiji. The closer the better. Opt for water sourced in the UK in order to minimise food miles.

  • Is it funding water exploitation abroad? Many of the companies in this guide have been implicated in the exploitation of scarce water sources in drought ridden countries. Avoid companies that are accused of siphoning water from these communities.

  • Is it bottled? Unless the bottle is a reusable one bought from home, bottled water is an unnecessary use of scarce resources such as fossil fuels, minerals and even water itself. Wherever possible, take a refillable canteen from home to avoid having to buy bottled water.

Companies to avoid

Not only does Nestlé score poorly in our table, it has an ongoing boycott call against it for the aggressive marketing for baby milk formula in developing countries. We would recommend avoiding brands owned by Nestlé:

  • Vittel
  • San Pellegrino
  • Perrier
  • Nestlé Pure Life
  • Buxton
  • Acqua Panna

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Belu bottled water [S]

Company Profile: Belu Spring Water
16

One Water [s]

Company Profile: The One Foundation
15

Life Water [S]

Company Profile: Life Water
12.5

SPA Reine bottled water [S]

Company Profile: Spadel SA
12.5

Ballygowan bottled water

Company Profile: Britvic Plc
12

Brecon Carreg water

Company Profile: Brecon Water
12

Strathmore mineral water

Company Profile: Strathmore Mineral Water Co
11.5

Thirsty Planet bottled water [S]

Company Profile: Harrogate Spring Water Ltd
11.5

Harrogate Spring bottled water

Company Profile: Harrogate Spring Water Ltd
11

Highland Spring bottled water [O]

Company Profile: Highland Spring Ltd
10

Co-op Fairbourne Springs water [S]

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
5.5

M&S bottled water

Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc
5

Badoit mineral water

Company Profile: Danone World Water Divison
3.5

Evian bottled water

Company Profile: Evian
3.5

Volvic mineral water

Company Profile: Danone World Water Divison
3.5

Waitrose bottled water

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
3.5

Aldi bottled water

Company Profile: ALDI SOUTH Group
3

Lidl bottled water

Company Profile: Lidl UK GmbH
3

Sainsbury's bottled water

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
2.5

Aqua-Pura bottled water

Company Profile: Princes Ltd
2

Buxton bottled water

Company Profile: Nestlé SA
2

Glaceau Smartwater

Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
2

Morrisons bottled water

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
2

Perrier bottled water

Company Profile: Nestlé SA
2

San Pellegrino bottled water

Company Profile: Nestlé SA
2

Schweppes Abbey Well

Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
2

Vittel bottled water

Company Profile: Nestlé SA
2

Tesco bottled water

Company Profile: Tesco plc
1

ASDA bottled water

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number is expected to jump by another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.

The majority of plastic bottles used across the globe are for drinking water. Bottled water bottles are made from PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) which is made from oil, a non-renewable resource. Whilst plastic bottles are often correctly labelled as ‘recyclable’, only 57% of them are actually recycled.

The issue is the 43% of plastic bottles that aren’t recycled but lie in a landfill site somewhere for the anticipated 450 years it will take them to decompose. Or they end up in the ocean. 

Plastic and the Environment

Oceans

Plastic pollution of the oceans means that microplastics are now in the food chain. By 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In June, scientists found nearly 18 tonnes of plastic on one of the world’s most remote islands, an uninhabited coral atoll in the South Pacific.

Most bottled water companies are not reducing the amount of single-use bottles they use. They are focusing their efforts on ‘lightweighting’ – making PET bottles thinner to reduce costs, plastic-use and carbon emissions – or developing bioplastics which do not use oil as a source material, such as Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Smartwater which is up to 30% plant plastic.

Image: Bottled water plastic pollution oceans

However, lightweighting and bioplastics fail to tackle the problem of ocean plastics. Lighter and bioplastic bottles still pose an ingestion and choking threat to marine life. They also still slowly break down into tiny pieces of plastic which can absorb toxic chemicals and contaminate the ocean food chain.

Water & carbon footprint

A bottle of water is 1000 times more carbon intensive than its tap alternative. This is because of the carbon emissions which arise largely from packaging and transportation.

According to Defra, on average, it takes an estimated 1.53 litres of water to produce a 1 litre of bottled water. This includes the water used in the manufacturing stages and the water in the bottle. Whilst its water footprint is lower than for other soft drinks, which have additional agricultural water inputs, this is still an unsustainable way of distributing water.

Mircroplastics & Health

Never has it seemed more important to reduce plastic pollution than since the revelation, in September 2017, that there are microplastics in global tap water.

The investigation was performed at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health for Orb Media. It sampled tap water from more than a dozen nations and found that 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Microfibres were also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the US. The findings have led to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health.

The investigation suggested that the obvious source was microfibres from clothes and carpets. Other sources include microbeads and plastics, including bottles, which break down into microparticles. In September 2016, the UK government announced plans to ban microbeads from cosmetics (but not all microbeads) by the end of 2018.

Current standard water treatment systems do not filter out all of the microplastics so part of the solution is to improve these systems. But we also need to tackle the problem at its source – the production and use of plastic including, of course, plastic bottles.

Are Glass Bottles Better for the Environment?

All things considered, if you are going to buy a bottle of water, a glass bottle is the better option.

Here’s why:

  • A PET bottle uses twice as much minerals and fossil fuels, 17 times more water and produces five times the greenhouse gas emissions than a glass bottle.
  • The UK generally has good kerbside recycling for glass bottles. In the UK, we generally recycle around 68% of glass bottles and 57% of plastic bottles.
  • Glass bottles have been recycled into new glass bottles for many years and they are infinitely recyclable. Plastic bottles tend to get recycled into polyester fibre for clothing like fleeces or carpets. The lids are recycled into garden furniture, litter bins and pipes, which, in turn, are often not recycled.
  • Glass bottles produced in the UK have an average recycled content of 30%. One Water’s glass bottles are 35% recycled whilst Belu’s are 45% and its green glass bottles are 80% recycled. According to Greenpeace, plastic bottles currently only have, on average, 7% recycled content. (Coca-Cola has set a goal of 50% recycled plastic content by 2020 but Belu already uses 50% recycled plastic whilst One Water uses 25%.)

Water miles

The two bestselling brands of water, accounting for 29% of the bottled water we drink in the UK, come from France. This makes no sense whatsoever so avoid Volvic and Evian. Other imported waters from France are: Badoit, Perrier and Vittel. San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna are imported from Italy whilst SPA Reine comes from Belgium. Nestlé Pure Life is mainly sourced from Derbyshire but it may be sourced from the EU.

Image: Bottled water plastic pollution

In a league of its own is Fiji water which comes all the way from the Pacific ocean.

As with most things, local is best, so think local and drink local. Here is a list of the spring and mineral water brands sourced in the UK. Brands not on the list may just be bottled tap water.

England

  • Northumberland – Abbey Well, Glaceau Smartwater
  • Eden Valley, Cumbria – Aqua Pura, Tesco Ashbeck
  • Buxton, Derbyshire – Buxton
  • Staffordshire – Asda, Lidl
  • Stretton Hills, Shropshire – Waitrose
  • Harrogate, North Yorkshire – Harrogate Spring Water, Thirsty Planet
  • Huddersfield, Yorkshire – Morrisons

Scotland

  • Perthshire, Scotland – Highland Spring, Tesco Perthshire
  • Aberdeenshire – Waitrose 1
  • Vale of Strathmore – Strathmore

Ireland

  • County Limerick - Ballgowan

Wales

  • Powys, North Wales – Belu, Co-op Fairbourne Springs
  • Pembrokeshire, South Wales – One Water, Life Water
  • Brecon Beacons, South Wales – Brecon Carreg

Water Shortages

According to the European Environmental Agency, most water is used for agriculture rather than bottled water and there is generally no ‘water stress’.

So, whilst the bottle you buy in the UK is not directly involved in overextraction, you may be supporting companies that are causing severe water shortages for communities outside of Europe.

Coca-Cola, who produce bottled Glaceau Smartwater, has been criticised in various states in India for the overextraction and pollution of groundwater. For example, Coca-Cola has been engaged in a 12-year-long legal battle at its Plachimada bottling plant in Kerala, India. Although the factory has been shut since 2004, water from the wells is still too polluted to use.

Nestlé, who produce bottled water Nestle Pure Life, has also had its fair share of criticism on this front, which is no surprise from a company that famously declared at the 2000 World Water Forum in the Netherlands that water should be defined as a need – not as a human right.

Image: Nestlé water protest California

In 2016, it came under fire for bottling water in drought-stricken California, “It is very disturbing and actually quite offensive that a foreign company is taking our water, bottling it and selling it back to us,” said Nick Rodnam, one protester at a Los Angeles plant. California was in its fourth consecutive year of drought and residents had been instructed to cut their use.

In 2012, the award-winning film Bottled Life documented the conflict between Nestlé and the community of Bhati Dilwan, a village in Pakistan, where local leaders and members of the community accused Nestlé of draining groundwater resources to produce its Pure Life bottled water.

Action Against Bottled Water

Bottled water bans

Plastic water bottles have been banned in cities and public places around the world. For example, San Francisco was the first US city to ban plastic water bottles, in 2014, and now any packaged water is banned on city property.

In August, Donald Trump reversed the ban on the sale of plastic water bottles in 23 of America’s most famous national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, which had been in place for six years. The move came after lobbying by the International Bottled Water Association, whose members include Nestlé.

Examples from the UK include London’s Borough market phasing out the sale of plastic bottles and introducing drinking fountains and Selfridges banning their sale in some stores. Leeds University banned bottled water in the student union bars and shops in 2008.

Deposit return schemes

Organisations led by Greenpeace and Surfers Against Sewage, are now campaigning for a plastic bottle tax (deposit return scheme) to encourage bottles to be returned and reused.

Unsurprisingly soft drinks companies like Coca-Cola are lobbying against the tax. Two-thirds of the soft drinks companies recently surveyed by Greenpeace have a global policy opposing the introduction of deposit return schemes on drinks containers, although these schemes have boosted recycling and collection rates to over 80% across the world, and to more than 98% in Germany.

In 2016, leaked internal Coca-Cola Europe documents showed how the company viewed deposit return systems as something they should “fight back against”. But, Coca-Cola has now decided to support the introduction of the Deposit Return System in Scotland which got the go ahead in September.

The Environmental Audit Committee is currently considering a deposit return scheme for the UK which is supported by Environment Minister Michael Gove. 

The Bottled Water Market

This guide covers brands of unflavoured still and sparkling water. Flavoured water brands will appear in the soft drinks report in the next issue.

The market is dominated by global food giants Danone and Nestlé who, between them, account for nearly half of all sales. In the UK, sales were estimated at £2.2 billion in 2016. 71% of UK adults drink bottled water of some kind, prompted by the spotlight on the health effects of sugar, especially in terms of childhood obesity and dental health.

Bottled water sales are likely to receive a further boost in 2018 with the implementation of the soft drinks levy. Global bottled water consumption is projected to grow to over 520 billion litres per year by 2020, with a value of over $200 billion.[1]

Image: Belu bottled water

As well as the mainstream bottled water brands, we have covered five charity water brands: Belu, One Water, Life, Thirsty Planet and Co-op Fairbourne Springs, whose sales fund clean water projects.

Price Comparison of the chairty brands of still water:

Brand p per 100ml
Belu 28
One 20
Co-op Fairbourne Springs 9
Life 8.2
Thirsty Planet 7.5

Mineral, spring or table? 

Mineral and spring water must come from an underground source and be bottled at source. They must both be labelled with the name of the spring and its location.

Spring water can be processed to remove pollution or minerals. Mineral water cannot undergo any treatment apart from the addition of carbon dioxide to make it fizzy. It must also contain certain levels of minerals and the source must have undergone two years of frequent microbiological testing.

‘Table’, ‘mountain’ or ‘natural water’ is usually filtered tap water. In a classic real-life version of ‘Peckham Spring’ as sold by Del Boy in Only Fools & Horses, companies even sell us bottled tap water. Most famously, Coke tried, in 2004, to sell us its Dasani brand of ‘purified’ tap water (‘Dasani’ appropriately means ‘nothing’). That brand only lasted five weeks over here but it is still one of the bestselling brands in the USA.

Look on the label to see whether it says ‘spring’ water or ‘mineral’ water. If not, it may just be tap water.

Sparkling water may have carbon dioxide added to it or it may be naturally sparkling at its source like Perrier and San Pellegrino.

What to do about Sparkling water

Whilst bottled still water is easily replaced with tap water the same cannot be said of sparkling water. And if you are going to have a fizzy drink, sparkling, plain water is better than a fizzy sugary drink.

The answer is to make it yourself from tap water but this solution has been made much more difficult because of the SodaStream boycott, virtually the only manufacturer of sparkling water machines.

The SodaStream boycott

This Israeli drinks manufacturer has long been a target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005. Its principal manufacturing plant used to be located in the illegal West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, to the east of Jerusalem.

But, in 2015, SodaStream left the West Bank citing commercial considerations, with the transferral of operations to a factory in the Southern Negev region of Israel.

BDS campaigners argued that the company’s withdrawal from the West Bank was a testament to their efforts, with SodaStream’s links to the settlement economy an embarrassment internationally. In 2013, CEO Birnbaum even admitted the factory’s location had become “a pain in the ass.”

But SodaStream’s new factory is situated in Lehavim, close to the city of Rahat, a township in the Negev where many Bedouins have been forced to relocate to by the Israeli state, and which is blighted by high unemployment and is lacking in basic services and infrastructure.

The boycott of SodaStream continues because BDS argue that the company is complicit in the displacement of Bedouin Palestinians.

Alternatives to SodaStream

There are other counter-top machines such as Drinkmate, Isoda, or Limo Bar. Or there is the cheaper and lower tech Bubblecap which you just screw onto a used plastic bottle. But it’s hard to get the replacement CO2 canisters that charge these machines without using SodaStream’s.

You can avoid SodaSteam altogether by buying an old fashioned-style soda siphon and smaller CO2 cartridges to charge it. Catering and bar suppliers sell these siphons and cartridges, such as NisbetsCream Supplies and Drink Stuff. Austrian company Isi make glass, aluminium or stainless steel ones which sell at £30 upwards. The CO2 cartridges are about 30p each. The only downside is that the cartridges are disposable, but they are made from steel so can be recycled.

Or you can make fizzy water yourself following instructions and videos on the internet. These either involve using homebrewing type equipment like kegs, regulators and CO2 tanks or you can go ultra-low tech and use old plastic bottles, vinegar and baking soda and rely on a bit of home chemistry.

Alternatives to Bottled Water

The bottled water industry has spent millions of dollars to convince us that the only place you can get safe water is from a bottle, and that we need this product

according to Corporate Accountability International, a US non-profit group that campaigns against the corporate control of water. But the reality is that there are fewer standards concerning the cleanliness of bottled water than there are for tap water in Britain and the US.

And think of the financial savings to be made by ditching bottled water. Bottled water is 500-1000 times more expensive than tap water. For example, according to industry body Water UK, the average cost of a litre of tap water in the UK is 0.1p.[2] A litre of the UK’s bestselling brand Volvic (from our Best Buy supermarket Co-op) is 89p, that’s 890 times more than tap water.

If you’re a customer in a licensed premises like a bar, theatre, café or restaurant, you are legally entitled to ask for free drinking water.

Refill campaigns

There are plenty of tap water campaigns to get involved with. Here are a few:

  • Frank Water’s #PledgeToRefill campaign calls on people to carry a refillable water bottle. 
  • Refill.org.uk guides people to refill points in participating cafes, restaurants, etc. in Bristol, Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, Brighton, Norwich and Hunstanton. The businesses simply put a sticker in their window – alerting passers-by to the fact they’re welcome to come on in and fill up their bottle – for free! Refill produces an app to see where you can refill on the go. 
  • Give Me Tap also produce an app showing where to find free water refills or there is a map on their website. 
  • tapwater.org is a not-for-profit organisation promoting the drinking of tap water in the UK. They have an iPhone app for free refilling stations or a map on their website. 
  • Onelessbottle is campaigning to get bottled water out of London by championing a refill culture.

Bottles for life

There are loads of reusable water bottles on the market made from either plastic, metal or glass.

Stainless steel bottles

Stainless steel is a sustainable recycled metal with 95% of world steel recycled. Look for 100% food-grade stainless steel interior otherwise it might just be stainless steel exterior with an aluminium interior covered in a clear plastic lining. Look for BPA-free plastic caps or plastic-free steel caps.

Glass bottles

Obviously more breakable but you can buy bottle sleeves or casings to protect them.  

Plastic bottles

These are ubiquitous and cheaper than steel or glass. Many are now labelled as BPA-free. BPA (Bisphenol-A) mimics the hormone oestrogen and has been linked to developmental and reproductive disorders. The use of BPA in baby bottles was banned in the EU in 2011. 

However, there have been reports that even BPA-free plastics might contain oestrogen mimicking chemicals so perhaps plastic bottles are best avoided.

Some reusable bottle makers:

  1. Jerry Bottle is a not-for-profit social enterprise selling reusable water bottles. 100% of profits go to its Waterfall Charity to fund water projects around the world. They sell stainless steel and BPA-free plastic bottles. If you look at the bottom of your reusable steel jerry water bottle you will see the coordinates of the water project you have funded, so you can trace exactly which village your bottle is funding.
  2. Klean Kanteen make stainless steel bottles with either BPA-free polypropylene caps or plastic-free lids (steel and bamboo). A family-owned US company which is a B Corp, a company certified to be for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just shareholders. They introduced the first stainless steel, BPA-free, reusable water bottle in 2004.
  3. Frank Water sell BPA-free plastic bottles or Klean Kanteen stainless steel bottles and cotton bottle holders. 
  4. Refill.org sell stainless steel bottles. £1 from each sale will be donated to City to Sea anti-plastic campaign and £1 will be donated to WaterAid.
  5. Give Me Tap sell stainless steel bottles. Each bottle sold helps give a person in Africa clean drinking water for five years.
  6. Tapwater.org stainless steel bottles. 
  7. Retap glass bottles are Danish designed and made from strong borosilicate glass (as used in labs) and come with a 5 year breakage guarantee. You can have a BPA-free plastic lid or a wooden one and you can buy a separate cotton sleeve to protect it. Available from Scandinavian Design Center and Green Tulip. If you buy from 5050 hydrate 50% of annual profits go to a charity of your choice – Greenpeace, Water Aid, Keep Britain Tidy or Unicef.
Image: Belu water aid
Belu sales fund WaterAid clean water projects across 38 countries.

Company behind the brand

Harrogate Spring was the first commercial British bottled water, launched in Harrogate in 1740. By 1914, it was the largest exporter of bottled water in the country, “proudly keeping the troops hydrated from England to Bombay”. 100 years later, it signed an anniversary deal with the Ministry of Defence to supply water to military bases, ships and submarines around the world for which it loses a half mark in the Arms & Military Supply column. It currently boasts “last year the Harrogate-based business exported nearly two million bottles of spring water, with Russia being its largest overseas market.”

The company lost half a mark under Animal Rights for sponsoring the Ascot and Royal Ascot horse racing festivals. Horse racing in general in the UK has been criticised by the League Against Cruel Sports and PETA. In October 2016, Animal Aid reported they had handed in a petition signed by over 100,000 people accusing Ascot officials of “turning a blind eye to animal suffering”. They stated, “Ascot has had the worst fatality record of any flat course in Britain”.

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References 

  1. Mintel Bottled Water, March 2017 
  2. Mintel Soft Drinks June 2017