Against the flow: Which households drink bottled water?
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Neil Rothwell, Environment Accounts and Statistics Division, now with Agriculture Division
Canadians are drinking more bottled water than in the past. The International Council of Bottled Water Associations estimates that in 2000, 820 million litres of bottled water were produced for Canadian consumption. By 2003 that figure had risen to almost 1.5 billion litres.1 A household might choose to drink bottled water in the home as opposed to water from the tap for several reasons including increased convenience, taste preferences, concerns over the tap water quality or ongoing marketing by the bottled water industry.
Bottled water has raised considerable controversy both in Canada and abroad and has attracted a good deal of media attention (see Text Box: Bottled Water). Overall, almost 3 in 10 households reported drinking bottled water in the home in 2006. This study finds that higher-income households were more likely to drink bottled water, but that households living in apartments, households with seniors and households with at least one member with a university education were less likely to drink bottled water than other groups.
There is a close association between those with high income and those with a university education and they normally share many characteristics. However, drinking bottled water is not one of them.
In general, households with higher income were more likely to drink bottled water (Chart 1). Close to a quarter of households with a total household income of $40,000 or less drank bottled water in the home, with the proportion increasing to a third among households earning more than $91,000.
For low-income households, bottled water may be a relatively expensive purchase. From this perspective, bottled water is a luxury item that affluent households are more able to afford.
This article uses data from the 2006 Households and the Environment Survey (HES). The 2006 HES was conducted by Statistics Canada to measure the actions of Canadian households with respect to a wide range of environmental behaviours, including drinking bottled water as the main source of drinking water in the home. Using the HES, a number of socioeconomic and demographic variables are linked to those households drinking primarily bottled water in the home and the results are presented as a share of total households.
Data collection for the 2006 HES took place in conjunction with the Labour Force Survey (LFS). It should be noted that the 2006 HES did not inquire about drinking bottled water outside of the home (at work for instance) where the convenience of bottled water becomes a factor. The results, therefore, underestimate the share of households that regularly consume bottled water.
Four characteristics are used to investigate bottled water drinking among Canadian households:
Households are divided into quintiles—five equal groups based on the total income, from all sources, received by all members of the household.
Households are divided into four groups based on the highest level of education attained by any member of the household.
Households are divided into five groups based on the presence of household members in three age categories: children (under the age of 18); working-aged adults (aged 18 to 64 years); seniors (aged 65 and over).
Households are divided into four groups based on the type of dwelling within which the household resides.
For the sake of brevity, "drinking primarily bottled water in the home" may be referred to in the text as "drinking bottled water."
The likelihood of drinking bottled water also increased with higher education, but only to the 'some postsecondary' level. Close to a third of households with some postsecondary education drank bottled water (Chart 2). Households in the 'University' group had the lowest rate of bottled water consumption compared to all other educational categories. A quarter of university-educated households drank bottled water in the home.
Bottled water consumption has caused huge debate both in Canada and abroad and has attracted a good deal of media attention. The increasing use of bottled water has raised a number of environmental, moral and health concerns. These issues include concern over selling a substance that many consider a "public good," drinking water quality and boil water advisories and orders, claims of health and safety benefits of bottled water over tap water and the potential environmental damage caused by manufacturing, transportation and disposal of plastic water bottles.
In May of 2007, Maclean's Magazine reported on bottled water. The CBC news service has also run stories on many aspects of bottled water including concerns over the privatization of water, the possible impact bottled water has on dental health and the problems associated with the disposal of plastic water bottles.
In addition, the websites of many environmental advocacy groups such as the Polaris Institute and the Sierra Club of Canada devote much space to issues surrounding bottled water consumption.
The debate over bottled water consumption has washed into the political arena, both in Canada and abroad. For example, there have been calls for a special tax on bottled water at the City of Toronto, while concerns over the environmental impact of bottled water have appeared on the Government of California website.
The lower share of bottled water consumption for university-educated households (25%) contrasts with the higher bottled water consumption for the top income group (33%) (Table 1). A close association often exists between university-level education and high income and it would be expected that rates of bottled water drinking would be similar for the university-educated and high income earners. However, this was not the case.
Looking in more detail at bottled water consumption for different educational and income groups, households with high income but where no one had completed a university degree had the highest rates of drinking bottled water (Table 1).
Among households with an income over $91,000, fully 44% in the 'High school' category and 38% in the 'Some postsecondary' category drank bottled water. This compares to only 29% in the same income group with at least one member who had completed a university degree.
Similarly, in the second highest income group, 41% of households where all members were in the 'Less than high school' group drank bottled water compared to 26% of households with at least one member who had completed a university degree.
There is a strong relationship between university education and a lower likelihood of drinking bottled water in the home. Further, this relationship is strong enough to override most of the positive impact that high income has on bottled water drinking. The affinity for bottled water among high income households is driven primarily by those households where no one has a university education.
It is possible that university graduates are more aware of the environmental issues surrounding bottled water. They may also be more sceptical of the claims that bottled water is a healthier choice than tap water.
Household consumption of bottled water varied with the age of household members. With the exception of those households that included seniors, working-aged adults and children, households with seniors were less likely to drink bottled water than those households without seniors (Chart 3). Moreover, households composed only of seniors were the least likely to drink bottled water in the home (17%).
The very low rate of bottled water consumption among senior-only households may be due, in part, to a continuation of an established behaviour. For most of their lives bottled water was perhaps not readily available to seniors and therefore relatively few developed a habit of purchasing bottled water.
In addition, there is an income-related link. Seniors tend to have lower incomes than many other groups. According to the survey, fully half of senior-only households had an annual income of $25,000 or less, while one-quarter had an income between $25,000 and $40,000. At the other end of the scale, only 3% of senior-only households had an income over $91,000. These figures compare to 20% in each income category in the population as a whole. As already noted, lower household income is generally associated with lower rates of drinking bottled water.
In contrast to the results for seniors, households where children were present were more likely to drink bottled water. Households composed of working-aged adults and children were the most likely to drink bottled water in the home (33%). This finding is partially income-related. More than one-half of all households with children had an income of over $64,000 while only 14% had an income of $25,000 or less.
Bottled water consumption also varied by the type of dwelling in which a household resided. The share of households living in apartments that drank bottled water was five percentage points lower than those living in single family homes and four percentage points lower than those in multi-units (Chart 4).
The low rate of bottled water consumption among households living in apartments may have both an age-related and an income-related link. One-third of all senior-only households lived in an apartment compared to only 13% of households with children. As shown, senior-only households had a very low rate of drinking bottled water.
In addition, apartment dwellers tended to have lower household incomes and lower income is also associated with lower rates of drinking bottled water. Households living in apartments were twice as likely to be in the lowest income category compared to all households (40% versus 20%). Meanwhile, only 6% of households in apartments had an income over $91,000 per year compared to the 20% of all households that were in this highest income category.
Drinking bottled water in the home was more prevalent in households that had higher incomes. Despite this, university-educated households were less likely to drink bottled water than households with a lower level of formal education. The lower rate of bottled water drinking among university-educated households, set against the higher rates seen in high income households, shows that behaviours associated with income are not necessarily also associated with level of education.
Households living in apartments and those that included seniors were less likely to drink bottled water, while households that included children were more likely to drink bottled water. Senior-only households had a particularly low rate of bottled water drinking.
- International Council of Bottled Water Associations, Zenith Marketing and Beverage Marketing Corporation, 2007, Global Bottled Water Statistics, (accessed November 8, 2007).
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