Gerry Farrell: Bottled water is really not better

WHAT'S the world's biggest rip-off? Is it Beyonce's ten grand, gold-plated Balenciaga leggings? Is it the $50,000 electromagnetic field reader that Lady Gaga bought to keep ghosts away? Or is it something closer to home '“ printer ink? I bet you didn't know that a single gallon of printer ink costs the same as 2652 gallons of petrol.
File picture: Ian RutherfordFile picture: Ian Rutherford
File picture: Ian Rutherford

But no, put all these examples to one side. The single biggest rip-off is something that costs you about 60p. You probably buy one at least once a week. And even as you hand the money over you may well be thinking “this is ridiculous”. I’m talking about bottled water.

The stupidest thing that marketing people have ever persuaded us to do is pay good money for something we already get for next to nothing. There is no sustainable argument to be made for drinking bottled water. The best the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) can come up with is that if there was no bottled water we would turn to fizzy drinks. Still, we persist in imagining that the water in those lovingly-branded plastic bottles comes from some special source – mysterious, marble chambers deep in the heart of a secret mountain, hand-filtered by tiny water elves. The fact is that a quarter of all the water that is bottled in the world comes straight from the municipal water supply – that’s right, it’s the same stuff that comes out of the tap.

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Some folk will defend their daft addiction by telling you bottled water tastes better than tap water. Well, in 2009 a survey of 1000 British citizens found they couldn’t tell the difference between tap and bottled water when asked which was the more pleasant, pure, natural and refreshing.

Others will tell you it’s better for you. It isn’t. That’s why you won’t find “Better for you than tap water” printed on your Evian label. In fact, Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University, author of Water: All That Matters, recently said: “People think there must be something wrong with tap water because it’s so cheap and plentiful but from a safety and price perspective, tap water is better for you. There’s actually a greater chance you could find something harmful in bottled water than from your taps. Ideally it should be drunk on the day it is opened, as it can easily pick up bacteria from someone’s hands or face.”

But that risk is nothing compared to the actual damage that disposable plastic water bottles are doing to our oceans and wildlife. Forty per cent of the surface of all the world’s oceans is now covered by ‘islands’ made entirely of plastic waste. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California is twice the size of Texas. One million seabirds and ten thousand marine mammals are killed every year by waste


So what can we do here in Edinburgh? We can be on the right side of history and set an example to the rest of Scotland. In September 2009, the Australian city of Bundanoon became the first city in the world to completely ban bottled water from its stores’ shelves, installing water fountains around the city instead. Mexico City, San Francisco and Seattle no longer buy bottled water for city use and Chicago has gone further by applying a five-cent tax to every bottle.

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The Glastonbury music festival won’t be selling bottled water any more either. Last year, a million plastic water bottles were left in the mud for landfill disposal. This year, the festival will provide 400 water-drinking taps instead.

Our own council could take the lead here. But have they got the bottle?

The sweet taste of fame and fortune

I was surprised recently when I turned up at an Edinburgh college to speak about job prospects in the creative business to a roomful of graphic designers and my host invited me to “come backstage to the Green Room”.

I don’t know what I was expecting but I must say I felt a little bit special as she ushered me towards a door with “Green Room” written in felt pen on A4 paper and blue-tacked to the wood. Inside, there were no chairs, three muffins and a flask of tea and coffee. So that’s how special I was. I ate one of the muffins gratefully and a wicked thought entered my head that next time – if there was a next time – I would demand a rider.

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A rider is the list of things a celebrity performer insists be provided in the dressing room before the show. The lists are often endless and endlessly amusing. Cher demands a separate room for her wigs, Barbra Streisand insists on rose petals in the toilet and Christina Aguilera won’t go on stage unless she gets vitamin tablets in the shape of characters from The Flintstones.

It wasn’t like that in the early days of showbiz. Elvis’s backstage rider says simply: “Soft drinks and some water.” And The Beatles, at the very height of their fame, asked the tour promoters for “some Coca-Colas and clean towels”. If you were to mark a turning point in the history of ridiculous backstage rock ‘n’ roll riders, it would be when Van Halen famously asked for “a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones taken out – ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES!!!”. This got the band a reputation for being a bunch of precious prima donnas when, in fact, their fussy confectionery clause was inserted for one very good reason: health and safety.

At one of their gigs, the promoters hadn’t adhered to the precise wiring specifications detailed in the contract. One band member was almost electrocuted by a live mic stand. So they became obsessively fussy about the pre-show instructions they gave. Their way of testing whether or not these instructions had been properly read was the “brown M&Ms” clause. If they found brown M&Ms in the sweetie bowl backstage, they could be pretty certain that the concert promoters had paid little or no attention to all their other extremely safety-conscious requests.

EUR in the wrong, Trump

That walking wind farm Donald Trump is advising Americans that it’s unsafe to travel to Europe. Maybe he should acquire a sense of perspective. Less than 250 Europeans have died in terrorist attacks in the past two years. Over the same period in the States, 25,000 Americans have died in gun crimes.