Bottled water is a staple on many shopping lists, but its production and consumption has huge implications for the environment. One Dutch startup wants to reduce its impact, by cleaning up the water closer to home.
Providing access to water that is safe to drink has long been seen as a challenge that affects countries in the Global South. However, as climate change develops and droughts become more frequent throughout the globe, water security and access is fast becoming a global crisis. Furthermore, in places where fresh, clean water is unavailable, or undesirable, bottled water is often used as a substitute. In many cases, these plastic bottles, many of which have been shipped across the globe, end up in landfills, rivers and oceans.
Aquablu is a Netherlands-based company looking to change up this dynamic by offering a range of high-tech filtration devices which can turn practically any available water into clean, uncontaminated drinking water. In May this year, they made Dutch headlines by turning water from Amsterdam’s famous canals into a premium product. Considering Amsterdam’s canals are usually considered too dirty to even swim in, the idea of drinking the water made quite an impression on locals, with the first batch of bottles selling out within the first day.
The concept, and hefty price tag of 39 EUR per bottle, was designed to generate interest behind Aquablu’s idea as well as illustrate the fact that in much of the world, clean drinking water can be locally sourced. Aquablu sells a range of purifiers and softeners which use smart technology to reduce the size and complexity of the unit. In particular, its Supreme Osmosis filtering system uses artificial intelligence to analyse the water and adjust the filtering membrane accordingly. This does away with requiring different filter membranes for different water conditions and the need to replace them. The same intelligent system also cleans itself to prevent bacteria build up.
The filter system - the larger model of which can filter 5000 litres a day - claims to remove practically all contaminants from the water, including viruses, microplastics and traces of heavy metals. In theory, this would make previously undrinkable water safe to drink, and improve the quality of tap water to bring it up to the level of bottled options.
Indeed, central to Aquablu’s philosophy is the aim to wean consumers off store bought bottled water. Marc van Zuylen, COO of Aquablu, told RESET:
“Why buy bottled water, when you can have an even better quality water straight from your home tap? After years of testing and prototyping, we implemented our first systems in schools, hospitals and farms. This was the start of a product that currently finds its way into homes, hotels, offices and retail stores worldwide. Not only to tackle the plastic problem, but also to bring safety and transparency to a market that is characterised by misunderstanding.”
Water, Water Everywhere...?
Producers of bottled water, such as Nestlé and Dannon, are obviously eager to discourage customers from turning to their own taps for drinking water, and their marketing strategies often play on public concerns, such as water quality and supposed health benefits. In some countries, the strong taste of chlorine can also put off consumers,
It is true, that in some cases, bottled water is a safer alternative to tap water, even in Europe. Travellers to certain towns and cities in Meditereanean countries such as Greece and Italy are often warned against drinking tap water which may come from unfiltered sources and pass through older lead pipes. Despite this, the use of bottled water is also increasing in Global North nations with good quality drinking water. In the US, sales of bottled water increased by around 5 percent from 2018 to 2019, while the figure was up to 8.5 percent in the UK.
Furthermore, as bottled water becomes more of a lifestyle choice, the demand for more exotic water also increases. Although many bottled water companies are locally sourced and only sell to domestic markets, some of the most popular brands are shipped from across the globe. Nestlé owned San Pellegrino exports water sourced in the Italian Alps to 145 countries, while Fiji Water - bottled and transported from the isolated island of Fiji - is now the most popular imported brand in the US. Producing the bottles and then transporting them on freight requires a huge amount of energy and contributes to carbon emissions. Research from the Pacific Institute suggests this is an incredibly inefficient way to transport water, and requires around two thousand times the energy to produce and transport than tap water.
Although some countries, such as Germany, have well-established and popular recycling and deposit schemes on plastic PET bottles, according to Marc most do not get recycled. He explained to RESET:
“Around 80% of the plastic water bottles we buy aren’t recycled. They end up in landfills, in our oceans and eventually even in the food we eat. Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems we’re facing right now… You don’t need to be an environmental activist to understand it’s unnecessary to transport water from Fiji or the Himalayas to Europe.”
Although Aquablu products are commercially aimed at more affluent consumers, they have also been making them available to lower-income regions struggling to develop a clean drinking water infrastructure. For example, through various initiatives, their purifiers have been installed in hospitals, schools and NGOs in Kenya. In these locations, the ease of use and self-maintenance of the smart filter technology could likely have the biggest impact.
Climate change in particular is having an impact on the availability of safe drinking water in arid regions of the world. Many traditional reservoirs reserved for drinking water are shrinking in size, especially in countries such as Chile, Morocco, Spain and India. Tensions between neighbours for access to water, for example between Turkey and Iraq, are also heightening. Indeed, the concept of so-called 'hydro-politics' - where the water supply has the potential to influence geopolitics, diplomacy and conflict - is gaining increasing attention across the globe.
As drought conditions become more frequent, some states may need to turn to new sources of drinking water. In such cases, smart filtration devices may provide viable solutions. Who knows, there may even come the time for Northern European nations where drinking filtered canal water is not such an unusual idea.