UAntwerpen, Water-Link and Flanders Knowledge Center Water investigated why we drink bottled water en masse

Why drag bottles of water out of the shop when cheap and healthy drinking water comes out of the tap? According to research, tap water has a negative effect on perception. "Flemish people assume that it is unhealthier and less tasty than bottled water", it sounds.

Research by the Flemish Environment Agency (VMM) shows that 66% of Flemish people mainly drink bottled water. The University of Antwerp, Water-Link and the Flanders Knowledge Center Water (Vlakwa/VITO) went in search of the cause of this bottled water love and also investigated how the Flemish people feel about drinking purified wastewater. After all, circular water use is becoming the rule, according to the Flemish Blue Deal of Zuhal Demir.

Bottled water is a hundred times more expensive than tap water, we need three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water and the production of bottled water requires 1000 to 2000 times more energy than the production of tap water. Moreover, everyone now knows how harmful plastic bottles are to the environment. Not to mention the fact that plastic is still made from increasingly scarce fossil fuels, which means that the production process not only consumes a great deal of energy, but also leaves a considerable trail of CO2. And yet Flanders 'scores' in the European charts as a top consumer of bottled water. 

Form of status

The researchers find a major cause in the perception of the Fleming. They do not like tap water. He assumes that it is unhealthier and less tasty than bottled water. If it is also water that is recycled from waste water, the mistrust is even greater. "Moreover, bottled water is still seen as a form of status," says Dirk Halet, strategic coordinator at Vlakwa. "It is the norm during social affairs and restaurant visitors are easily prepared to pay several euros for a well-known water brand".

"The cause is not entirely to be found in inadequate infrastructure, as only a small percentage of Flemish households are not yet connected to the pipeline network or are struggling with lead pipes," explains water technologist Siegfried Vlaeminck (UAntwerp). This was only the case for 3% of the 2345 participants in the study.

Small support base

Sociologists Robbe Geerts and Frédéric Vandermoere (UAntwerp) note that the preference for bottled water is most pronounced among certain socio-demographic groups. "It is mainly men, older people and lower educated people who do not put tap water on the table. When we talk about confidence in recycled wastewater as drinking water, this support is generally not high. We also see that distrust is most common among the lower educated and women. What is striking is that we find most confidence in water purification technology in the province of Antwerp, while confidence is lowest in West and East Flanders".

Pieter Joos, Els Van Meenen and Katleen Van Den Steen of Water-Link note that governments and companies around the world are looking for alternative water sources to deal with imminent shortages. Drinking tap water is one part of the solution, treating and reusing wastewater another. But the Fleming is sceptical. Although experts such as bio-engineer Tim van Winckel (UAntwerp) assure that tap water is perfectly safe, the Fleming clearly has reservations.

Informing and raising awareness

According to Ronny Blust, Vice Rector of Research at the University of Antwerp, further qualitative and quantitative research should provide more insight into the Flemish people's attitude towards tap water and recycled waste water. "Informing and raising awareness must come first. Flanders needs a number of concrete action strategies to turn distrust into confidence. After all, international research has shown that a broad social support base is indispensable in order to proceed with a well-established waste water reuse. This is an important condition for the success of the Flemish Blue Deal.

Would you like to know more about the research?

Robbe Geerts, UAntwerp: or +32 484 69 24 30


Geerts, R., Vandermoere, F., Van Winckel, T., Halet, D., Joos, P., Van Den Steen, K., Van Meenen, E., Blust, R., Borregán-Ochando, E., Vlaeminck, S. E., (2020). Bottle or tap? Toward an integrated approach to water type consumption. Water Research, 115578. doi:10.1016/y.watres.2020.115578

Geerts, R., Vandermoere, F., Halet, D., Van Winckel, T., Joos, P., Van Den Steen, K., Van Meenen, E., Blust, R., Vlaeminck, S. E., (2020). I drink (no) waste! An exploratory study into socio-demographic differences in public support for the reuse of waste.