Kicking the bottle

WiC talks with China Water Risk about China’s bottled water industry

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A Jinmao Tower worth of plastic water bottles are produced every year

The Jinmao Tower rises 420 metres into the air, forming part of the iconic skyline that overlooks the Bund from Shanghai’s Pudong district. The tower’s design was intended to convey prosperity: it has 88 floors and its blueprints are punctuated with the number eight (a number many WiC readers will know is associated with wealth in Chinese).

However, China’s tallest building can also be used as a less welcome indicator. According to China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based think thank, one new Jinmao Tower-sized structure could be built every year simply by stacking the wasted plastic used by China’s bottled water industry.

“This is just the collapsed plastic from bottles and carboys. This doesn’t even include plastic from other bottled drinks either; it’s just from bottled water,” China Water Risk’s director Debra Tan told WiC.

China’s Bottled Water: Boom or Bust? is an investigation by China Water Risk’s Liu Hongqiao into the startling growth of the country’s bottled water industry, and asks whether it is sustainable.

“In two decades China’s bottled water consumption went from 2.8 million cubic metres to 39.5 million cubic metres, overtaking America,” notes Dawn McGregor, who was in charge of producing the report. China is now the world’s largest consumer of bottled water by volume – which includes the larger carboys of water you might find in your office water-cooler – but its per capita consumption is still far below the world average.

“China is on 30 litres per capita per annum,” McGregor explains, “The world average is 37. Hong Kong is at 118. So if China consumed bottled water like Hong Kong’s citizens, it would be four plastic Jinmao Towers a year, but if it was like Mexico, it would be eight and a half.”

Growing wealth has gone some way towards contributing to the popularity of bottled water (see WiC242). For many urban citizens, bottled water is a convenient and fashionable means of achieving their daily intake. To many it also seems the safest option for their families. That, in turn, is a symptom of the supercharged growth in the Chinese economy, and the pollution of water sources that has resulted.

“China has been going through massive economic growth and development and that’s come from the overuse of fertiliser and pesticide as well as industrial growth, and with that the water quality of a lot of China’s waterways has decreased,” comments McGregor. “The latest Ministry of Land Resources data showed that more than 60% of China’s groundwater monitored was either of ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ quality. With data like that it’s easy to see why the people of China are wary of the quality of water coming from the tap.”

In April this year the State Council released the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (Water 10 Plan), which aims to counter this negative aspect of industrial growth.

To be precise, the plan is an amalgamation of other water-related plans with wide-ranging impacts across sectors. It sets out 10 general measures to control pollution discharge, promote economic and industrial transformation and to save and recycle resources. It also requires factories to update their facilities, to meet new technological standards, and has set tight deadlines for conforming. The goal: to reduce the depletion of groundwater levels and also improve the quality of the water remaining.

Cleansing the water supply at its source is the primary step towards encouraging more consumers to use tap water; this action needs to be complemented by improving the hygiene of the pipes that deliver it into people’s homes. In the 12th Five-Year Plan, which ends this year, China committed Rmb700 billion ($110 billion) to safeguarding the country’s water supply from source-to-tap. Now that the 13th Five-Year Plan is about to be implemented, China Water Risk believes there is more investment to come.

But even with these planning blueprints in place, it will be some time before China can offer safe tap water nationwide as an alternative to bottled water. Meanwhile, the packaged water industry continues to expand. China Water Risk argues this is problematic on several fronts.

McGregor tells WiC: “There aren’t any large scale recycling facilities operating in China – it’s all done by rather small enterprises. Without scale it’s very hard to be profitable so there’s currently little economic advantage to doing recycling. But a lot of consumers assume that their bottles will get recycled.”

In reality, there is little recourse for waste disposal teams other than to dump the bottles in landfill sites.

The production process of bottled water is also incredibly resource-intensive. “One bottle of packaged water requires roughly an additional two bottles of water to produce, as well as the equivalent to a quarter-bottle of oil in terms of the energy required” explains Tan.

In 2012, the bottling industry consumed energy equivalent to as much as 161% of the power generated by the Three Gorges Dam, calculates China Water Risk. But most of it won’t come from a renewable source.

The Boom or Bust report also points out that transportation of bottled water is one of the most environmentally unfriendly aspects: it is largely powered by fossil fuels.

The environmental costs of bottled water cast an even greater shadow once the supposed benefits are assessed. “There’s an image that bottled water is healthier or safer,” McGregor begins, “But our report looks into that and it’s probably not. Tests reveal there are hormones, antibiotics and bacteria present – all thousands of times the level that’s allowed within bottled water.“

A sizeable volume of this unhealthy Chinese water comes from the “fake water” industry, or bottled water produced by unauthorised companies and usually below safety standards. Sometimes the counterfeit products are sold with forged labels of well-known brands.

But what could reverse the growth of China’s bottled water industry? The government has been piloting a water usage rights trading scheme across seven provinces, and now intends to expand it nationally. Similar to the plans to curb carbon emissions, the scheme will see usage rights issued to large water consumers. More efficient users can then trade their rights, allowing those that require more water to access it while those that are able to cut their usage can earn extra income.

Tan explains, “The theoretical idea is that each industry will be allocated X amount, they will then trade excess water use amongst each other. Because how much is saved and traded is transparent, smaller quotas and permits can be issued. The government can then continue tightening the noose to the maximum efficiency point.”

As the quota system becomes more restrictive, China Water Risk expects that provincial governments will have to consider carefully how they allocate water between their local industries and how much goes to their bottled water producers.

In the past decade, local government officials have been happy to encourage the opening of bottled water plants as a means to boost economic growth. However, the new water trading scheme will upend these incentives in the decade ahead, making the true cost of the industry more apparent. Instead local governments will likely spend more time and effort persuading the public to drink more tap water.

As the Boom or Bust report says: “In a country with not a lot of water, the future of bottled water could look very different.”

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