Global Observer

As plastic trash mounts, a push in Hong Kong to drink tap water

As plastic trash mounts, a push in Hong Kong to drink tap water

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HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's tap water is safe. So why do its residents drink so much bottled water?

Activists say Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of consumption of bottled drinks globally

HONG KONG -- "Isn't it strange that we are willing to pay a thousand times too much for something which actually runs from our faucet at home?" said Merijn Everaarts, environmental activist and founder of water-bottle company Dopper, during a TEDx event in Hong Kong, an independent offshoot TED Talks.

Everaarts has made it his mission to grow awareness about the oceans' "plastic soup," choking clusters of plastic that in large part are made up of disposable bottles. One crucial factor contributing to this waste is the unnecessary consumption of bottled water in developed countries, where tap water is just as good to drink.

And when it comes to a penchant for purchasing bottled water, "Hong Kong is one of the worst" in the world, said Lisa Christensen, the chief executive of the Asian branch of Dopper, a Dutch company that promotes drinking tap water and also sells a carbon-zero, reusable water bottle. The company claims about 1.3 million single-use bottles -- for water and other drinks like soda -- are used in Hong Kong each day, among a population of seven million.

By World Health Organization standards, tap water in Hong Kong is safe to drink. The government website says, "The water that comes out of your taps is amongst the safest in the world, as long as the plumbing in your property is properly maintained."

Residents often filter or boil tap water before drinking, but even these measures are considered unnecessary. Yet, it is not uncommon for people to stock up on bottled water for their homes. Some high-end restaurants will not provide or sell tap water, serving exclusively "artisan" bottles.

For years, environmentalists have said that such water is no cleaner than tap water in most developed places.

Christensen says the reasons behind this high consumption are varied. It is a wealthy city where many people do not hesitate to spend. There are convenience stores on almost every street corner, making it easy to reach for a drink. Hong Kong has a hot climate, so thirst hits frequently. "And also the awareness levels are just generally lower here in terms of environmental protection," she said.

But the habit of drinking bottled water is also related to the businesses that sell it and the marketing they use -- a problem that extends across developed countries.

"It's almost brainwashing. For a time, I went back to Canada, where the water is so clean coming out of the tap, but still people are drinking bottled water. And they're drinking bottled water from Fiji," Christensen said.

Christensen has led a beach cleanup program in Hong Kong for over a decade and sees firsthand the plastic garbage that piles up along the coast.

For Everaarts, the advocacy for reducing plastic waste started three years ago after watching a documentary called Midway, which exposes the devastating effects of plastic waste far from home, in the waters off Hawaii. "Who am I in this big world with this big environmental disaster. I wanted to stand on a barricade to shout, 'Don't use plastic bottles!'" he said in his talk.

And the push for drinking more tap water has also led to an initiative to supply clean water to places that need it. Ten percent of the Dopper's net proceeds goes to drinking water projects in Nepal. Everaarts points out that while a popular brand bottles expensive water from Fiji, the irony is Fijians hardly have access to clean water.

Of the million bottles thrown out in Hong Kong per day, "most of it will be burned or end up in a landfill, because there's hardly any recycling in Hong Kong. But a lot of it will also end up on the shores of Hong Kong," Everaarts says.

"There is a possibility to clean up beaches, but it's only a tiny percentage of what ends up in the ocean."

Photo: Flickr/StockPhotosforFree.com

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure