Eau, no: Clean, healthy and pure? Hardly. Bottled water is killing the planet

And our thirst grows, with 154 billion litres drunk in one year.

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Bottled water, the designer-look drink that has become a near-universal ac-cessory of modern life, may be refreshing but it certainly isn't clean. A major new study has concluded that its production is seriously damaging the environment.

It costs 10,000 times more to create the bottled version than it does to produce tap water, say scientists. Huge resources are needed to draw it from the ground, add largely irrelevant minerals, and package and distribute it - sometimes half-way around the world.

The plastic bottles it comes in take 1,000 years to biodegrade, and in industrialised countries, bottled water is no more pure and healthy than what comes out of the tap.

The new study comes from the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington-based environmental group which has previously alerted the world to melting ice caps, expanding deserts and the environmental threats of a rapidly industrialising China. It points out that the world consumed a staggering 154 billion litres of bottled water in 2004 - an increase of 57 per cent in just half a decade.

Emily Arnold, the report's author, said: "Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing - producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy."

Leading activists and high profile environmentalists yesterday voiced their approval of the study, and concern over the effect our seemingly insatiable appetite for bottled water is having.

Bob Geldof said: "Bottled water is bollocks. It is the great irony of the 21st century that the most basic things in the supermarket, such as water and bread, are among the most expensive. Getting water from the other side of the world and transporting it to sell here is ridiculous. It is all to do with lifestyle."

Dr Michael Warhurst, Friends of the Earth's senior waste campaigner, said: "It is another product we do not need. Bottled water companies are wasting resources and exacerbating climate change.

"Transport is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, and transporting water adds to that. We could help reduce these damaging effects if we all simply drank water straight from the tap."

According to the EPI report, tap water is delivered through an "energy-efficient infrastructure", whereas bottled water is often shipped halfway across the world, burning huge amounts of fossil fuels and accelerating global warming. In 2004, for example, Finnish company Nord Water sent 1.4 million bottles of Helsinki tap water to a client in Saudi Arabia. In the same year, producing the plastic bottles that delivered 26 billion litres of water to Americans required more than 1.5 million barrels of oil - enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year.

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Secretary of State for Environ-ment,said: "It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to work out that they're on to something here. It is obvious that there are big environmental issues around bottled water, and people need to be made more aware of them."

The UK is by no means the biggest consumer of bottled water - the average Briton drank 33 litres in 2004, a sixth of the amount drunk by the typical Italian - but sales are rocketing. Coca-Cola bought the Malvern brand in 1999, seeing it as a remedy to falling sales of soft drinks.

The US's second most imported brand, Fiji, which is shipped around the world from the middle of the South Pacific, has been gaining ground in the UK. Fashionable London restaurant Nobu charges £5 for small bottles, and is even rumoured to boil its rice in it. It has been featured in popular TV series such as Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is rumoured to be the choice of Tom Cruise, Ozzy Osbourne, Heather Graham, Jennifer Aniston and Renee Zellweger.

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