Singapore’s love of bottled water: a costly habit

Photo:Steven Depolo

Singapore’s tap water is perfectly safe for drinking. Yet, the city state’s thirst for bottled water continues to grow every year.

By Maegan Liew

The bottled water business in Singapore is booming. Bottled water sales in Singapore grew from S$161.3 million (US$117.3 million) in 2013 to S$179.4 million (US$130.4 million) in 2018.

In 2015, Singaporean consumers spent about S$134 million (US$97.4 million) on still bottled water – a 24% increase from five years before.

Within Asia, Singapore is one of the few countries where tap water is safe for consumption, alongside Japan and South Korea. The city-state is also renowned for its water technologies and its position at the front line of water innovation.

If clean, potable water is easily accessible with the turn of a tap, why would people go out of the way to purchase bottled water, and at a significantly higher price?

Bottled water consumption comes with environmental and health threats

The rising trend of bottled water consumption has a significant environmental impact. Most bottled water is sold in single-use plastic containers, very few of which are recycled. A 2018 study by the Singapore Environment Council found that about 467 million plastic bottles are used in Singapore each year, enough to fill 94 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Yet, only 4% of plastics were recycled last year, according to statistics from the National Environment Agency.

Source: Singapore Environment Council

Moreover, contrary to popular belief, bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water. A study commissioned in 2001 by World Wildlife Fund International reported that there are fewer standards regulating the bottled water industry than tap water in Europe and the US.

In Singapore, the import of bottled water is regulated by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA). While the WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality contain more than 200 parameters for acceptable drinking water, the AVA’s water quality parameters and requirements amount to around 30.

Improper or extended storage of bottled water could further pose health risks to consumers. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastics used in water bottles, may leach antimony when stored for a long period of time. Antimony is a regulated contaminant which can cause acute and chronic health effects including vomiting and diarrhoea.

Photo: Tookapic

While bottled mineral or alkaline water are marketed as healthier alternatives to tap water, many bottled water products are sourced from public water supplies. Market leaders, including F&N’s Ice Mountain and Coca-Cola’s Dasani, are sourced and packed from local water supplies in Malaysia. Together, these two brands accounted for more than half of the bottled water sales volume in Singapore in 2014.

Price largely determines Singaporeans’ choice of bottled water

Price appears to be the main criterion for Singaporean consumers choice of bottled water. The sale of low-priced bottled water is on an upward trend. According to Sheng Siong, a leading supermarket chain in Singapore, the cheapest bottled water is the most popular.

But if the price is the deciding factor, then tap water ought to be the clear winner. A 600ml bottle of drinking water retails for about S$0.50 (US$0.36) to S$1 (US$0.73), while the same volume of tap water only costs 0.1 cent according to PUB. This makes tap water 500 to 1,000 times cheaper than bottled water.

However, experts say that the relatively low retail price of bottled water as compared to other drinks in the market means that this price differential, while significant, is not sufficient to motivate consumers to give up bottled water consumption. After all, at S$1 (US$0.73) a bottle, this is a price many are willing to pay for convenient and immediate access to water.

Plastic waste litters Singapore’s ECP.
Photo Vaidehi Shah

Ingrained habits are hard to break

In spite of the high drinking quality of the Republic’s tap water, its citizens are not in the habit of drinking directly from the tap.

It is a common practice in Singaporean households to boil water before drinking it. This stems from ingrained habits that were passed down from one generation to another. For many, boiling drinking water is a hangover from times gone by when sanitation and hygiene standards were lower, and water had to be boiled to kill any bacteria or pathogens that might be present.

Additionally, many Singaporeans still believe that public taps are dirty, putting them off drinking or refilling bottles in public. Bottled water becomes a convenient and affordable alternative and the clear choice for Singaporeans looking to escape the ‘yuck’ factor that comes with drinking from public taps.

An important first step towards reducing Singapore’s reliance on bottled water lies in making drinking water fountains readily available in public spaces so that people do not need to resort to buying bottled water outside their homes. 

Significant attention has been drawn to the impact and redundancy of the use of plastic straws in recent times. Yet there has been markedly less awareness towards the use of plastic containers. Bottled water consumption and the plastic waste it generates are completely unnecessary and easily dispensable in Singapore if people simply turn on the taps.

Not only is the thirst for bottled water burning a hole in the pockets of Singaporeans, but it is also an unnecessary and avoidable addition to the damage that mankind is already inflicting on the environment.