Is bottled water more hygienic?

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Single-Use Plastic Water Bottle on a Beach
Image Credit: Unsplash Brian Yurasits

It is not only during times of illness outbreaks that customers believe bottled water is best. Many people live in or travel to destinations where tap water is perfectly safe to drink, yet they still choose to purchase bottled water.

Hotels that we know and work with are genuinely struggling right now to balance the prevention of the spread of infection with the prevention of waste.

We are concerned that encouraging businesses to switch back to single-use will not only significantly increase waste (the negative impacts of which will far outlast this particular pandemic) but that single-use does not necessarily equate to 'hygienic' or the prevention of the spread of infection.

Viruses and bacteria can live on hard non-porous surfaces or objects for days if we do nothing to remove them - this is the same whether the object is single-use or reusable. Ultimately, preventing the spread of infection depends upon your own standard operating procedures and these will be different for every hotel. The important thing here is to ensure that all of your staff are aware of your procedures and implement them.

Bottled Water

In all of our research to date, bottled water is almost always the #1 generator of single-use plastic waste in hotels. Whilst many hotels do separate water bottles for recycling, it is important we look at reducing and even eliminating this waste at source.

Essentially, you have four choices when it comes to providing drinking water:

  1. Water packaged in single-use materials

  2. Water packaged in returnable materials

  3. Water filtered and provided on site

  4. Water from the tap

Every option has pros and cons

A single-use plastic bottle, Tetrapack, aluminium can or the packaging surrounding them is touched and probably coughed on or sneezed on by many people in the supply chain before it reaches your hotel. Once on your premises these products are unloaded by the delivery driver, unwrapped by your staff, stored by your staff, moved around the hotel by your staff and served by your staff - any of whom could have also coughed or sneezed on them at any point. Subsequently they are touched (and possibly coughed or sneezed on) by the guest consuming them and then possibly collected again by your staff if guests have not disposed of them properly. It is unlikely that any of these products are cleaned once at the hotel. All of these products created single-use waste, not all of them can be recycled (depending upon the local infrastructure).

Returnable glass bottles and large returnable water carafes go through the same stages outlined above with the exception of large water carafes that would not be disposed of by guests.

It is unlikely that these products would be cleaned or sanitised once at the hotel.

These products can be reused over and over again, significantly reducing waste.

Watered filtered and bottled on site by staff goes through the stages above that are associated with being on the premises, but avoids the associated off-site contamination. Reusable bottles will be very likely to go through a dishwasher after each use. These systems significantly reduce single-use waste.

Water filtered and provided through refill stations will have some staff contact for maintenance and cleaning but will ultimately be touched by guests who may need to push buttons to dispense water or where bottle/glass rims may come into contact with water spouts (depending on the type of machine). Keeping these systems clean and sanitised requires good Standard Operating Procedures that mandate very regular cleaning throughout the day. These systems significantly reduce single-use waste.

Guests may bring their own reusable bottle which they will touch and possibly cough or sneeze on, maybe it is passed around a family and it might be handed over to staff to refill without being washed properly. Reusable bottles do reduce single-use waste. Having a means to offer guests the option to properly clean their bottle is a good option.

A reusable bottle provided by the hotel will be handled by staff before being passed to guests to use, after which it will follow the stages outlined above in 'guest's own reusable bottle'. It may also go back into circulation in the hotel if the guests does not take it home with them. Reusable bottles do reduce waste. Having a means to offer guests the option to properly clean their bottle is a good option. If bottles are left behind by guests it is essential that they are properly washed through a dishwasher cycle before being redistributed to other guests.

Tap water can be served in a number of ways, some of which may include staff-guest contact at some point (handing over a reusable bottle or glass for refill, leaving a jug of tap water on the table are good examples) or guests may just fill up themselves from taps in their room.

All of these methods have the potential to spread infection if not properly managed, but not all of them produce waste.

Whichever method you choose

  • Ensure proper hand-washing facilities are in place for staff to wash hands regularly, particularly in storage and service areas, and that frequency of hand-washing is increased.

  • Encourage improved hygiene amongst staff and guests e.g. notices to demonstrate coughing and sneezing into the elbow rather than the hands

  • Provide hand-washing / sanitising facilities in public places for guests/staff, particularly near to food and drink service areas.

If you do continue to use or to introduce single-use items, in addition to the above, give consideration to the following:

  • Choose materials that have a (preferably high) percentage of recycled content e.g. RPET and continue to separate them for recycling - this avoids the use of virgin plastics

  • Choose materials that can be recycled in your destination and implement suitable separation and collection (in staff and guest areas)

  • Avoid multi-layer materials that are difficult to separate and recycle (check with your waste collection contractor)

  • Avoid commercially compostable products if you do not have the infrastructure to separate them on site and/or if there are no facilities available in your area to process them.

If you install onsite water filtration for

a) Your own bottling

  • Choose filter machines that do not need to be operated manually

  • Choose wide-necked refillable bottles as these are cleaned much more effectively on the inside by the dishwasher.

  • Implement procedures to ensure that all bottles go through a full dish-washing cycle

  • Implement regular cleaning of water filter machines, particularly parts that are 'high touch' by staff

b) Refill by guests

  • If reusable bottles are provided by the hotel, implement a system that enables them to be thoroughly washed in a dishwasher. For example, guests hand over a used bottle and receive a clean one in its place, similar to the exchange system used for beach towels. This might require the payment of a deposit.

  • Choose refill machines that do not need to be manually operated

  • Where refill machines are manually operated, ensure a robust sanitising programme is in place

As well as waste and hygiene, there are a variety of other trade-offs associated with each of these options (carbon emissions from transport for example) that we suggest you consider before making any final decisions.