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Surprise reaction to Costco's 50c vending machines: 'Convenience gone crazy'

It's probably the cheapest you'll find - but it's made some people see red.

Heated debate has erupted over vending machines in Costco stores offering cheap bottled cold water, with some arguing the low prices actually represent a "shameful" side of society.

The ultra-cheap water is available for just 50c in Australian stores. And while those tired of sky-high supermarket prices praised the offer, which is well below what you'd pay at rivals Coles and Woolworths, environmentalists say Costco is just displaying another example of excessive plastic use.

The debate initially emerged on Reddit where a user posted a photo of the cheap water available in US stores for 25c, but Yahoo has confirmed Australian stores offer a similar deal, albeit slightly more expensive.

Costco's ultra-cheap bottled water has sparked heated debate among environmentalists. Pictured is a vending machine in the US (right) and Australia (left). Source: Reddit / Supplied.
Costco's ultra-cheap bottled water has sparked heated debate among environmentalists. Pictured is a vending machine in the US (left) and Australia (right). Source: Reddit / Supplied.

Aussie tap water among cleanest in the world

Experts say that while Australians have access to some of the highest-quality tap water on the planet, the rate at which we consume bottled water doesn't reflect that. Additionally, we also pay the most for bottled water compared to any other country on earth, according to a 2021 United Nations (UN) report. The report said Australia has the second highest consumption rate per capita of bottled water behind Singapore.

Independent researchers Emerald for Sustainability echo the UN's report and say the impact of Aussies' obsession with bottled water has now reached problematic levels.

The group revealed the country's annual use of bottled water generates more than 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions — the same amount that 13,000 cars generate over the course of a year.

Bottled Aussie water a billion dollar industry

The sector is also projected to generate a revenue of $1.8 billion in Australia in 2023, according to data gathered firm Statista, and it's expected to grow by 3 per cent each year.

It's been estimated that individual Australians roughly spend between $45 to $500 annually on bottled water, according to various data sets including UN research, with the average volume of store-bought bottled water an Aussie will drink in 2023 being around 27 litres.

An image created on AI platform Midjourney shows how Sydney Harbour could look in 2050 if Australia's plastic recycling programs continue to fail. Source: Rianti Bieler
An image created on AI platform Midjourney shows how Sydney Harbour could look in 2050 if Australia's plastic recycling programs continue to fail. Source: Rianti Bieler

With some 7 billion tonnes of plastic entering the ocean every year — and over 80 per cent of marine litter found on Aussie beaches alone being plastic — experts have warned that now is the time to cut down on the "unnecessary" habit of buying water, and to boycott single-use plastics in stores.

'It's a curse'

Total Environment Centre (TEC) founder Jeff Angel said Australia's insatiable appetite for bottled water stems from a mix of "very successful marketing and convenience gone crazy".

"I think it's a curse the industry has put on consumers to convince them that they need the pipe water in plastic bottles, whether at home or away from home," Angel told Yahoo News Australia.

"Put it this way, before we had bottled water, there weren't many health alarms about the safety of tap water going off," he said.

"So the water industry has engaged in a massive marketing campaign to change people's perceptions and that's led to the enormous waste of plastic, extraction of water resources and all the energy costs involved."

Angel explained that since state and federal governments started implementing bans on single-use plastics, which have gradually been rolled out over the last decade, we have started to see some improvements when it comes to our plastic consumption. But, he warned, there's much more to be done.

"The container [refund] schemes are making a big impact on single-use on the bottles," he said, pointing to the fact less discarded plastic bottles are turning up in places such as beaches.

"So yeah, there's a very significant impact from the refund scheme. It doesn't mean we're still not wasting a lot of energy producing the bottles though."

New plastic-induced disease emerges

Meanwhile, a new plastic-induced disease found in seabirds has scientists calling for more research into the pollutant's impact on human tissue. An Australian study has found large amounts of scar tissue inside the stomach lining of all 30 flesh-footed shearwaters. Dubbed “plasticosis”, the new illness was detected on Lord Howe Island, 700 km northeast of Sydney and reported in Journal of Hazardous Materials by Adrift Lab in March.

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