Civic Exchange’s Survey Reveals Public’s Habits and Attitudes Towards Bottled Water Consumption

Independent policy think tank Civic Exchange today released the results of a public opinion survey on Hong Kong residents’ consumption habits and perceptions regarding bottled water and plastic waste in Hong Kong. The survey aims to help policy-makers develop targeted policies to reduce bottled water consumption and thereby help reduce plastic waste.

Plastic waste is an issue of concern in Hong Kong. It is estimated that 19.7 per cent of Hong Kong’s municipal solid waste comes from plastic waste, translating into 1,826 tonnes of plastic generated per day. Although plastic bottles constitute a relatively small proportion of plastic waste in Hong Kong, they are an easily avoidable source of waste.

“Bottled water is in theory an unnecessary and avoidable source of plastic waste as potable water is easily available from the municipal water supply. This survey sought to understand people’s consumption of bottled water as well as their water dispenser usage and recycling practices, in order to better understand how to motivate people to reduce their plastic waste.” Civic Exchange Chief Executive Officer Yan-yan Yip remarked.

The survey, funded by WYNG Foundation, was conducted in August 2014. 1,013 respondents were interviewed in this random household telephone survey. After the completion of telephone survey, two focus group discussions were held with selected respondents in order to explore alternatives to bottled water.

Key findings of the survey:

Drinking habit and environmental concern

  1. Just over half of respondents usually drink some bottled water; 16 per cent are heavy consumers.
    53.1 per cent of respondents drank bottled water, and 15.9 per cent of respondents said that bottled water made up at least half of their water intake. Bottled water drinking was more prevalent among men, younger people, and the more educated.
  2. Environmental attitudes have no significant effect on consumption of bottled water.
    Although over 80 per cent of respondents agreed that plastic waste is a serious or very serious problem, they were not noticeably more likely to avoid bottled water than those who placed less importance on the problem. Among bottled water drinkers, frequency of purchase fell only slightly as concern about plastic waste increased.
  3. “Convenience” is the main consideration in drinking water choice.
    When asked to explain their preference for bottled or tap water, the most commonly stated reason by both groups (37 per cent of those who drank mainly tap water and 58.2 per cent of those who drank mainly bottled water) was “convenience”. Their purchasing habits also indicate a convenience-driven consumption culture. Around 70 per cent of bottled water consumers usually bought it from convenience stores rather than supermarkets or household order, and 91 per cent of consumers usually bought bottles of less than 1L in volume, which are usually intended for immediate personal consumption but more wasteful of plastic than bulk household purchase of larger bottles.Adoption of alternatives to plastic waste – water dispenser usage and recycling
  4. Low adoption of water dispensers but high willingness to use them, provided that standards of available and quality are met.
    Just 26.2 per cent of respondents expressed that they used a public water dispenser or drinking fountain in the last six months. Nonetheless, 46.4 per cent respondents said that they were willing to use water dispensers if they were widely available and provided water of similar quality to bottled water.
  5. 65.2 per cent of respondents reported recycling plastic bottles.
    The survey finds that concern about plastic waste appeared to have an impact on recycling behaviour. Overall, 65.2 per cent of respondents said that they recycled empty plastic bottles. Those who were more concerned about plastic waste were more likely to recycle.
  6. 45.5 per cent of respondents dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with existing recycling facilities.
    On the whole, 45.5 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the arrangements for plastic bottle collection in Hong Kong. Focus group participants expressed doubts whether plastic placed in recycling bins was really recycled and suspected it might end up in landfills instead.

Highlights of policy recommendations:

  • To position more water dispensers with high quality water in prominent locations – Water dispensers need to become competitive with bottled water in terms of distribution and accessibility, in order to encourage the public to reduce bottled water consumption. While water dispensers are mostly found in sports and recreation venues, the HKSAR Government, private sector and public bodies should proactively consider providing more water dispensers in other convenient locations. To reduce people’s reluctance to use water dispensers, good water quality and hygiene of water dispensers should be ensured. Part of the solution is adopting transparent approaches by making maintenance schedules and water quality test results available to the public. Publicity campaigns and partnership with water filtration companies would also help to build public goodwill and inspire people’s confidence.
  • To encourage developers to provide tap water sources in new buildings – Developers should be encouraged to configure water plumbing in new commercial buildings so that each floor can have a pantry with a tap. Incentives should be offered to employers to retrofit potable tap water sources into existing workplaces so that employees can have convenient access to potable tap water at work.
  • To strengthen environmental education on reduction of plastic waste at source – The survey identified that there is no clear relationship between concern about plastic waste and bottled water consumption. The public has adopted recycling as a pro-environment behaviour but reduction of plastic waste is not viewed in the same light. More efforts have to be made to strengthen public education and awareness campaigns in order to motivate reduction of plastic waste at source.

“Some people have the misconceptions about recycling. The public needs to be made aware that recycling is not a perfect substitute for reduction due to the energy resources required to manufacture and transport bottles, and the difficulty of recycling plastic waste. Used drink bottles are rarely made into new bottles, but instead downcycled into lower-quality products,” Civic Exchange Project Manager Carine Lai stated. “The Government and environmental groups need to provide accurate messages to the public on reduction of plastic waste at source and recycling.”

“To address the problem of plastic waste, reduction of plastic waste at source is vital. Therefore, more efforts have to be done on encouraging the public to reduce bottled water consumption.” Yan-yan Yip added. “Recycling is not the best way to reduce plastic waste, but it is important, and there is still room for improvement. This survey indicates that the Government and environmental groups have to make more efforts to improve the reliability and trustworthiness of our plastic waste recycling system to encourage the consumers to recycle.”

Results of the survey are included in Civic Exchange’s report Reducing Plastic Waste in Hong Kong: Public Opinion Survey on Bottled Water Consumption and Attitudes Towards Plastic Waste. Its summary report presenting the survey key findings was also released today.