Plastic Water Bottle Culture in Europe

A couple years ago, I arrived in northern Italy, my first time in Europe since the ripe age of 13. As a naive Canadian, I walked straight towards the tap to fetch a glass of water after a long travel day.

“STOP, you can’t do that here!”,  I heard from from across the room.

To my surprise, the locals animatedly insisted that the tap water not only tasted lousy but could also be bad for my health. 

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Their solution? Take a plastic bottle.

Without a question, I nodded my head and followed the locals. Who wants to risk diarrhea on their holiday?

In the following weeks, I started to notice the insane amounts of plastic water bottles being used. Even the restaurants served bottled water.

Different Countries – Same Problem

I have since spent time studying and living in France and Belgium and have noticed the same plastic water bottle culture prevailing.

According to the European Commission, the average person in the EU consumes up to 106 litres of bottled water per year.

From my experience, the general norm in these European countries is to head to the grocer, find the water bottle section (usually an entire aisle), and stock up with a humongous pack of plastic water bottles (which are also wrapped in plastic) to last you a couple weeks, drink, and  repeat.  

Not only is plastic bottled water significantly more expensive, but  bottles, caps and lids are the the top single-use plastic items found on sea shores in the EU.

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After moving to France this August, I decided to do my own research. I was shocked to find out that more than 98.5% of tests carried out on drinking water met EU standards according to a report by the European Environment Agency (2016).

If the water quality isn’t the issue, why is the market flooded with plastic water bottles? 

We know that the single-use, throw-away plastic culture is bad – so why does the demand for bottled water continue to grow? 

The Problem

Consumers have an obvious lack of trust in drinking water from the tap which has developed into a cultural norm of drinking bottled water. The European Commission found that slightly less than 60% of Europeans consider themselves well-informed about the quality of their drinking water.

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Source: European Commission

I believe there is also a common misconception that plastic water bottles are completely and easily recyclable. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not all plastics are recyclable and only a very small percentage of plastic water bottles are actually recycled properly.

Moving Forward

Thankfully, the EU has realized this problem and has developed plans to increase citizens’ confidence in the use of tap water for drinking, which could contribute to reduce plastic usage and litter.

These plans include measures to increase tap water quality, improving access to tap water in public places and to promote the usage of tap water.

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How You Can Help

Pack a reusable water bottle on your next trip to Europe. Your reusable bottle only needs to be filled about 15 times to have a lower carbon impact than the typical single use water bottle.

Don’t be shy on the airplane and ask the flight attendant for a water bottle refill if you’re feeling bold 🙂 

Our upbringing, surroundings and habitual situations certainly influence our consumption behaviours. I propose that we put a little more effort into reusing and refilling, reminding ourselves and others how our small actions can help make a big impact.

We have a privilege to pick and choose – to essentially curate our consumption. Our power as consumers is where we spend our dollars. Using this privilege and power is an opportunity to make the world a better place. 


19/11/04
Tessa Hill

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