Today, according to the United Nations, almost 90 per cent of all people have access to clean drinking water. This is, however, a fairly recent phenomenon, even in the developed world, where safe water flowing out of taps for cooking, drinking and washing has only been available to all for around 50 years. Yet, more or less simultaneously, it has become the norm almost everywhere to sip specially bottled water from single-serving plastic bottles.
Water that bubbled from the ground in natural springs has been prized for its minerals and purity since the days of the Roman Empire, more than 2,000 years ago. In places like Baden-Baden, Germany, and Bath in the United Kingdom, ‘taking the waters’ became highly fashionable, as people believed these Roman spas conveyed an array of health benefits – from improving fertility to curing kidney stones. These medicinal values, along with a growing understanding that dirty water is a real health hazard, are the origin of today’s global bottling industry.
Initially, the bottling of water was an attempt to share the health benefits of such waters as Evian from France, San Pellegrino from Italy or Germany’s Fachinger – the favoured drink of literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. But the bottling industry also aimed to evoke the sophistication and luxury of spa towns. And then in the 1970s and 1980s, bottled water came to be seen as more healthy than tap water, which was considered less tasty or safe – both assumptions that have been scientifically disproven. By the mid-2000s, bottled water was the fastest growing product in the global drinks industry, with consumption more than doubling between 1997 and 2005. Today, bottled water is considered by many to be a must-have accessory.