WATER WARS: The Epilogue

SUMMARY OF THE RESULTS FROM THE AVTTS “BATTLE OF THE BOTTLES”, May 26, 2012:

After tabulating the votes from our recent “Water Wars” taste-off, we spent some time discussing what conclusions could be drawn from the experience, and decided to share them here.  First, here’s how the votes on “best taste” were divided (with two people having chosen a tie between two samples, for a total of 102 votes).   Although we decided to withhold the actual brand names, we will reveal their source:

SAMPLE   ID

# votes

% of total

A: Bottled from BC spring water

23

22.5

B: Bottled from municipal tap water, Lower Mainland

24

23.5

C: Port Alberni City tap water

29

28.4

D: Bottled from municipal tap water, Brampton/Montreal/Vancouver

16

15.7

All tasted the same

10

9.8

TOTAL VOTES (2 multiples)

102

100

Now for a look at the reasons that people said they bought bottled water:

REASON FOR BUYING BOTTLED:

# votes

% of   total

Did not fill out this section

6

6

Don’t buy bottled water

53

53

Taste

11

11

Convenience

24

24

Price

9

9

Health concerns

6

6

TOTAL VOTES

50

100.0

 

Over half of those surveyed said that they don’t buy bottled water.  A few tasters neglected to fill out this section, but several of them had written comments (e.g., “Save the planet”, or “Plastic!  L”) that suggested they don’t buy bottles either.  For the rest, convenience was the most frequently-cited reason to buy bottled.  This led us to wonder: is it really less trouble to walk or drive to the supermarket to stock up, or to find a vending machine, than it is to walk to the kitchen tap to fill a reusable bottle that can be taken anywhere?  It seems than convenience is in the eye of the beholder!  The first 20 people who stepped up to taste samples received nice refillable bottles as a gift, courtesy of the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.  We hope that they’ll use them in good health.

The next most-cited reason for buying bottled water was taste, and here’s where things got really interesting.  The city tap water got the biggest share of the votes, followed fairly closely by bottled, reprocessed Lower Mainland tap water, and bottled spring water.  Another bottled water that originated from taps in Montreal, Vancouver, and Peel Region (a suburban area just outside of Toronto) came in a distant fourth.  It was interesting to note that several people who said they preferred the taste of bottled water actually chose the Port Alberni tap water as their favourite in the taste-off, or couldn’t detect any difference in taste!  Of the people who said they use city water, well over half preferred the taste of that sample, or could not detect any difference among the four samples.  Also, a couple of people said that some samples seemed colder than others – this, in spite of the fact that we kept everything at the same ambient temperature inside the tent.  Temperature, smoking, poor health, and other factors can certainly have a baffling effect on the taste buds.  The only conclusion that we could draw was that for some people, expectation and belief can play a big part in the tasting experience – marketing is powerful, and the whole point of it is to convince me that “my brand” tastes best.  Our taste test proves that this isn’t always borne out by experience.  There are several easy ways to alter the taste of tap water, if that’s an issue:  fill a pitcher and let it sit for a few minutes to volatilize any chlorine, then refrigerate it; add a slice of lemon or lime, or a sprig of mint to your glass; brew a batch of mild herbal tea and drink it hot or cold, instead of buying those expensive “flavoured” waters.  The simplest solutions really do work.

Price was cited as the third most popular determinant in one’s choice of bottled water.  We used three bottled waters that were among the most popular and readily-available brands.  They did NOT include the most expensive brands on the shelf.  Even so, we found that the cost of these three, when averaged out to $1.00 per litre, was 2,631 times the cost of city tap water, at $0.038 per litre!  Here’s a shocker: research has shown that, depending on the brand and your location, the average cost of commercially bottled water can range from 2000 – 10,000 times that of municipal tap water!  Then there are the hidden costs:  for every litre of bottled water produced, it takes 3 times as much water to produce it, not to mention the energy used up in producing and filling those plastic bottles, and the additional cost of transportation to market – often thousands of kilometres away from where it was bottled.  This represents a significant impact on the environment, with mountains of plastic ending up in landfills, and  aquifers being exploited freely by bottling companies who don’t pay for the privilege.  We won’t even attempt to get into the costs of marketing all that product; suffice to say that the consumers ultimately pay for everything we’ve mentioned here.  Again, we wonder:  are people really getting good value for their money when they buy bottled water?  All this and more is discussed in a report by the Polaris Institute (see the full text at: http://www.polarisinstitute.org/files/Murky%20Waters%20-%20The%20Urgent%20Need%20for%20Health%20and%20Environmental%20Regulations%20of%20the%20Bottled%20Water%20Industry.pdf ).

Finally, a few people cited health concerns as the most significant reason for their choice to buy.  The fact is that municipal tap water is regulated differently and more stringently than bottled water.  Again, the Polaris Institute report addresses this in a way that will surprise some people, pointing to a number of recalls of commercial bottled waters because of bacterial or chemical contamination.  Other sources, including the most recent Health Canada fact sheet (see http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/facts-faits/faqs_bottle_water-eau_embouteillee-eng.php ), confirm that bottled water, while generally considered safe, has not been found in any studies to be safer than properly-treated tap water.  In fact, Health Canada points out that commercial, single-use water bottles can be hard to clean properly, are subject to contamination, and should not be reused.  Just think: all that plastic can only be used once, and with no guarantee that it contains a safer product than tap water  – what a waste.

When all is said and done, people have the right to make their own choices.  All that we can ask is that they look a little more closely at the products that they consume, and do a real cost-benefit analysis that is based on as much information as they can get to balance out the marketing that bombards us every day.  For our part, we’re satisfied that Port Alberni tap water tastes fine, is at least as safe as any brand on the shelf, and is by far the most affordable option.  We’re lucky to be able to say that, as many communities in Canada and around the world don’t share in our good fortune.  Let’s do all that we can to protect this most basic and precious of resources.

(Our thanks to the Farmer’s Market for giving us space for the taste-off; to the ACRD for providing reusable water bottles as prizes to the first 20 tasters; Guy Cicon, City Engineer, for helpful information on our municipal water; our local media for print and TV coverage of the event; and most of all, to the 100 volunteer tasters who made it all possible!)

 

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