Nestlé Waters boss: We are not in competition with tap water

Soft drinks firms have a duty to provide consumers with good-quality bottled water, Nestlé Waters' boss has insisted, in the face of widespread concerns about the sustainability of water bottle production.

On average, Brits drink more than 50 litres of bottled water each a year, almost double the amount drunk in 2001. This is despite that the beverage can be drunk rom the tap, for free.

It is well-documented that the UK uses eight billion single-use plastic water bottles a year, with only a fraction making their way into recycling. Bottled water can cost between 500 to 1000 times more than tap water, and has a hefty carbon footprint – with some estimating around 82.8g of CO2 for a half-litre bottle.

But, as empathised by Nestlé Waters chief executive Maurizio Patarnello, the water bottle industry plays an important role in moving consumers away from sugary drinks. With 31.7 billion litres sold in 2015, the company claims that its bottles are the most direct way to pass healthy hydration messages to its customers.

“We don’t think that we are in competition with tap water,” Paternello said at the Financial Times Water Summit last week. “We never position ourselves as competition. However, if I do recognise one thing that we have done is contribute significantly to the health of the younger generations. 

“We are moving away from more sugary beverages to less sugary drinks, and there is a necessity now more than ever to provide our consumers with good-quality bottled water. It is about moving generations from less healthy to more healthy beverages, and we will continue to do that for years to come.”

Waste to resource

Patarnello was responding to a comment from the audience which suggested that soft drinks producers should seek to encourage the use of free water refill points, to reduce energy and plastic waste associated with bottle manufacturing. 

Earlier this year, a new national drinking water scheme was launched in the UK, offering free stations for the public to refill their water bottles. Whitbread, which owns Costa Coffee and Premier Inn, was the first business to join the scheme, having pledged to offer water for customers and passers-by in each of its 3,000 sites from March 2018.

Patarnello admitted that the soft drinks industry must work harder to transform plastic from a waste to a resource by increasing the amount of recyclable content in each bottle. Figures suggest that the world’s top-six soft drinks brands used a combined average of just 6.6% recycled plastic in their bottles in 2017.

“If bottles are seen as waste, then we will never gain the respect of consumers,” Patarnello said. “If we treat bottles as a resource, then it is a different story. Then we are in the circular economy. So how are we going to address it and transform from waste into a resource? This takes a lot of effort in terms of collection and recycling, knowing that the plastic bottle is 100% recycled.”

Tax on plastic

Nestlé is one of 42 UK businesses that has since signed up to WRAP’s Plastic Pact, which will see members ensure that 100% of plastic packaging can be reusable, recyclable or compostable. 

In the UK, there has been a deafening public cry for the implementation of a “plastic tax”, which would see increased rates of tax on virgin plastics, coupled with tax breaks for manufacturers using post-consumer recycled (PCR) content.

It is thought that the Chancellor will make a final decision on the matter next Monday (29 October) in his Autumn Budget. Patarnello refused to be drawn on whether he would ever back an internal tax on plastic across his company, but suggested his company would support any route taken by policymakers.

He said: “The price of water is a topic that goes much beyond bottles water. It touches farmers and industry. We want to be part of the solution so will go along with whatever the local authorities ask us to pay.”

George Ogleby

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