Hong Kong’s Thirst for Bottled Water

By Mandy Lao 13 August, 2015

What are consumer attitudes towards bottled water consumption & plastic waste in Hong Kong? Lao expands

53% of surveyed are bottled water drinkers & half of them are regular purchasers; small majority spend >HK$40/week
Plastic waste & tap quality not the issue, convenience is #1 reason for bottled water consumption (58%); same for tap
Water dispenser inconveniences needs to be overcome to reduce bottled water consumption; govt should take lead

Reducing Plastic Waste in Hong Kong - Public Opinion Survey of Bottled Water Consumption and Attitudes Towards Plastic Waste
In April 2015, Civic Exchange published the report “Reducing Plastic Waste in Hong Kong: Public Opinion Survey of Bottled Water Consumption and Attitudes Towards Plastic Waste”.  
Hong Kong has a plastic waste issue. The Hong Kong Government began its new plastic bag levy scheme on 1 April, 2015. Although plastic bottles contribute a rather small portion of plastic waste in Hong Kong, Civic Exchange took an interest in bottled water consumption, as it is thought that people currently choosing to consume bottled water could help reduce plastic waste if alternatives were made available.
The report includes results from a public opinion survey of 1,013 respondents. The report’s co-lead author Mandy Lao & Civic Exchange consultant, expands below on some key takeaways.

Globally, the consumption of bottled water has been on the rise in recent years. This has led to a growing concern over where the used plastic bottles go. This is also the case in Hong Kong, which happens to have a high daily municipal waste generation rate compared to other developed Asian cities.1 Generation of municipal solid waste has put enormous pressure on the three existing landfills, which are expected to reach full capacity before 2020.2

Hong Kong’s landfills face enormous pressure
Bottled water is an unnecessary & avoidable source of plastic waste

Plastic waste accounts for 19.7% of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong.3 This translates to 1,826 tonnes of plastic waste generated every day. Bottled water consumption, a common habit in Hong Kong, is an unnecessary and avoidable source of plastic waste.
Plastic bottles are made from fossil fuels and the plastic manufacturing process uses more than twice as much water as it takes to fill the a bottle. The plastic, not biodegradable, breaks down into small pieces after prolonged exposure to sunlight, and can then be swallowed by wildlife.

53% of surveyed are bottled water drinkers and half of them are regular purchasers

Over half of the respondents of the survey drink at least some bottled water. Further respondent breakdown (see chart below – click on chart below to enlarge):

  • 37.1% say that they drink more tap water than bottled water, and so for the purposes of this report are classified as “light drinkers of bottled water”;
  • 15.9%  say that at least half of their water intake comes from bottled water, and are therefore classified as “heavy drinkers of bottled water”;
  • 46.7% are “tap water drinkers”; and
  • 0.3% “Don’t know”.

Overall drinking preference, purchase frequency and weekly spending on bottled water

~1/4 spend less than HKD10/month or week

Based on purchase frequency and spending data (see chart above), we estimated that about a quarter of the respondent pool are occasional consumers of bottled water who buy it once a month or less, or spend less than HKD10 a week on it.

But a small minority (5-9%) of heavy drinkers spend HKD40+ a week; a few report spending well over HKD100+

The remaining respondents among drinkers of bottled water are regular consumers, who buy it at least several times a month. A small minority— around 5-9% —are very heavy consumers who buy it at least several times a week or spend more than HKD40 a week on it, with a few individuals reporting amounts well over HKD100. However, this underestimates bottled water consumption among the public due to the oversampling of older people and women.

Plastic waste & tap quality not the issue, convenience is the main consideration

Whilst an overwhelming majority of respondents agree that plastic waste is a problem, over 80% of recognise plastic waste as a serious or very serious problem, no obvious relationship could be found between attitudes towards plastic waste and whether a respondent drinks bottled water or not. However, among respondents who do drink bottled water, attitudes towards plastic waste is mildly associated with a lower frequency of buying bottled water.

Plastic waste & tap water quality not the issue …
“Findings indicate that bottled water purchases in Hong Kong are driven mainly convenience …”

Findings indicate that bottled water purchases in Hong Kong are driven mainly convenience and habit, not health concerns. Most respondents bought bottled water occasionally when going out for shopping or other errands. They mainly purchased it in convenience stores, and mainly bought bottles of less than 1 litre in volume, which are usually meant for immediate personal consumption rather than for sharing or household use.
There was no statistically significant relationship between people’s bottled water consumption and their rating of Hong Kong’s tap water quality.

Self-reported reasons for drinking water choices

58.2% cite cite convenience as the #1 reason to drink bottled water…
… convenience is also the #1 reason why consumers opt for tap water, then costs

However, the convenience factor was not limited to bottled water. In both cases (bottled & tap), convenience was the most commonly given reason by respondents. Among respondents who only or mostly drink tap water, cost is the second-most common reason (see diagram above).
Among the 7% of respondents who drink only or mostly bottled water, the second-most commonly given reason is a lack of other options. These respondents often said that they drank bottled water supplied by their employers as there was no potable tap water available at their workplace. This implies that a substantial number of these heavy users can be persuaded to switch to tap water but inconvenience obstacles need to be overcome.

Inconvenience needs to be overcome to reduce bottled water consumption; government should take the lead

Inconvenience helps explain why so few people use water dispensers or drinking fountains. Only about a quarter of respondents had used a public water dispenser in the last 6 months. Respondents and focus group participants were put off using water dispensers due to the lack of convenient locations (mostly located in recreational & sports facilities, public venues, and schools & universities) and the hassle of bringing their own bottle along to refill.

Water dispensers need to be more available & in more convenient locations (MTR, shopping malls etc…)

To encourage people to reduce consumption of bottled water, water dispensers should be more conveniently located. This way people are more likely to use them. The government should promote the provision of water dispensers in places with high pedestrian flow and locations need to be frequent and accessible enough to make them competitive with bottled water from convenience stores.
They should be provided in prominent locations at shopping malls, transport hubs such as MTR stations and bus terminuses, and major shopping and entertainment districts. The entrances to municipal services buildings and wet markets are also possible locations, provided water dispensers are kept far enough away from bad smells and unhygienic sights.
Beyond installing water dispensers on public property, the government should also collaborate with private developers and semi-public bodies such as the MTR Corporation and the Housing Authority.

HK govt. should take the lead in education & infrastruct0ure to make using a refillable water bottle a community norm

Besides providing the infrastructure, education and promotion are also needed to emphasize the benefits of tap water and also the importance of plastic waste reduction & recycling for environmental reasons.
If these concepts become a community norm, people will be more likely to self-regulate their behaviour and make it a habit to carry a refillable water bottle. After all, many people in Hong Kong now carry a reusable bag after the levy, so a refillable water bottle shouldn’t be far off.

1 Council for Sustainable Development, “Municipal Solid Waste Charging—Public Engagement Process: Knowledge Portal”, 28 March 2014, Hong Kong SAR, https://www.susdev.org.hk/susdevorg/archive2013/english/knowledge_portal/ knowledge_portal.html (accessed 23 February 2015).
2 Environmental Protection Department, “Waste: Sustainable Use of Resources, Five-Pronged Approach”, 4 September 2014, Hong Kong SAR, https://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/english/environmentinhk/waste/waste_maincontent.html (accessed 30 January 2015).
3 Environmental Protection Department (2012), Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong—Waste Statistics for 2012, January 2012, Hong Kong: HKSAR Government, https://www.wastereduction.gov.hk/sites/default/files/msw2012.pdf (accessed 23 February 2015).

Further Reading

  • Less Food Waste From Farm to Fork – China’s new plan on grain supply and storage says saving grain means saving water. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu contemplates challenges & opportunities in reducing food waste for a hungry & thirsty future
  • Corporate Strategy & The New Chinese Consumer – Authors of new report say that China’s war on pollution has created a fundamentally new Chinese consumer. Hart, Zhong, Ying & Zhu from Renmin University on why firms need to evolve their strategies
  • Corporate Water Reporting in China – CDP’s report shows potentially inadequate water risk assessment by Chinese companies & those with HQ’s in China. CDP’s Gillespy on their latest report and why it’s time to report on water risks
  • Brands: Time To Walk The Talk – H&M & Kering, are not walking the talk on raw material risks they identified themselves. With concrete action towards a circular transition missing, China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor wonders how serious they are

Drinking & Bottled Water

  • 2015 World Water Forum: 5 Key Takeaways – See what tops our list of key takeaways from the 2015 World Water Forum in South Korea. From bottled water to ‘green hydropower’ and transboundary issues – where does China stand?
  • Just What is Bottled Water? – We probably drink a bottle of water each day but do we really know what’s inside? China Water Risk’s Debra Tan takes a closer look – It might change the way you choose your water
  • 5 Takeaways from Aquatech China 2014 – How real is China’s war on pollution? Will it translate into a growing domestic water market? See what local & foreign industrial leaders have to say in Shanghai
  • Consumers Willing to Pay More for Water – Lu Shuping, President of Xylem China, shares key findings of a survey of six Tier 1 & 2 cities. Do consumers understand China’s water crisis? Are they ready pay more for safe drinking water?
  • China Water Risk special report: China’s Long March To Safe Drinking Water

Chinas Long March To Drinking Water 2015 Reprot - EnglishChinas Long March To Safe Drinking Water 2015 - CH

  • Drinking Water Safety Faces “The Big Test” – In wake of the upcoming ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ China Water Risk & chinadialogue investigated the true status of China’s urban and rural drinking water
  • SABMiller on Beer & Water – SABMiller’s Head of Sustainability talks with China Water Risk about its global approach to mapping and reducing its water footprint
Mandy Lao
Author: Mandy Lao
Mandy Lao Man-lei is a senior project manager at Civic Exchange. She graduated from Cardiff University with a master’s degree in city and regional planning (specialising in urban and built environment). Mandy has rich experience in directing and managing social and policy research projects. She is the co-author of Rethinking the Small House Policy published by Civic Exchange in 2003. She also co-authored Walkable City, Living Streets in 2012 and authored Small House Policy II: An Update in 2013. Her major research interests include urban built environment, public space design, community planning and sustainable development.
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