Bottled water sales starting to run dry

Revolt grows as environmental fears prompt diners to ask for tap

A revolt against bottled water in restaurants is growing. Last year, figures showed that, after more than three decades of year-on-year growth, bottled water sales dropped by 9 per cent. Now a survey shows more people prefer tap water when they dine out.

Almost two thirds of the people, 63 per cent, said they always asked for tap water or would prefer to drink tap water in restaurants rather than buy a bottle of still or sparkling. Despite that, one in four people surveyed by the WaterAid charity felt pressured to order bottled water when dining out.

Women were more likely to choose tap water than men, while people in Greater London and Scotland were the most likely to choose bottled water. Diners in the South-east and East Anglia were the happiest with tap.

The research group TNS asked 2,018 people about their water-drinking habits while dining out. Some 38 per cent, equating to 14 million nationwide, said they always asked for tap water and 25 per cent, or 9.5 million, said they preferred tap water. Thirty-seven per cent of diners said they always asked for bottled water. Although there is no historical comparison for the number of bottled water refuseniks, the level of people who "always" ask for tap is believed to be on the rise after high-profile campaigns to cut the environmental cost of bottled water.

The popularity of bottled water soared during the 1990s and early 2000s. Sales increased 6 per cent annually to more than two billion litres. But last year that trend was reversed, with sales in the UK dropping by 9 per cent. Most bottled water has a lower carbon footprint than other soft drinks but tap water is less harmful still and 1,000 times cheaper, costing 0.1p a litre at home. The £2bn-a-year British bottled water industry is hoping to persuade people that its product is purer than tap water, which is chemically treated before being pumped into houses and businesses.

WaterAid called on restaurants to ask diners to donate a few pence towards its work when customers order free tap water, with the launch of its Tap into WaterAid initiative. So far, 36 restaurants have signed up to the scheme, launched to mark United Nations World Water Day yesterday.

Andrew Cook, WaterAid's deputy chief executive, said: "Water is essential for life, yet here we are in 2009 and more than one in eight of the world's population are without access to it. Over 1.8 million children die every year from water-related diseases. We're so lucky here in the UK; we just turn on a tap and our fresh water is there."

According to WaterAid, 884 million people in the developing world are without clean water. "The only choice they have is to walk for miles in search of dangerously dirty water, or go without," the charity said.