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Ecological Impact of the Bottled Water Industry

The IBWA reports that the bottled water industry maintains a strong commitment to environmental protection, stating that bottled water waste contributes to about .33 percent of the country’s total waste. The rate of recycling of the PET plastic used in most water bottles is also on the rise, with about 31 percent of PET plastic being recycled. This rate has doubled during the five-year period between 2004 and 2009. In comparison, about seven percent of total plastic waste is recycled.

One area of growing concern to consumers is the use of BPA (bisphenol-A) plastic that is frequently used for products like baby bottles and in other hard, clear plastics meant for reuse. The primary issue surrounding BPA is the possibility that the plastic could leech harmful chemicals into foods and beverages, although this has not been proven conclusively.

The soft, disposable plastics typically used for bottled water don’t usually contain BPA; instead, they’re often made with PET plastics, which don’t pose the same concerns as BPA. Zintro expert Mike Brunett says, “Although the evidence on bisphenol A migration is yet to be conclusive and further studies have had variable results regarding the safety of BPA consumption, the industry has recognized this as a consumer concern. One of the larger players in this category has recently switched plastics material from polycarbonate, (the perceived underlying culprit to BPA) to PET plastic. Time and more studies will be needed and although the science may never be fulfilled here, consumer preference and market movement may be the ultimate forces that change the landscape in this area.”

Beyond BPA, the primary ecological concern surrounding bottled water is landfill waste contribution. Brunett elaborates: Unfortunately, there is no greater iconic symbol for unsustainability than an empty bottle of water seen as litter. This is in large part, a double-edged sword the category faces due to its widespread consumer popularity/growth, smaller usage of the larger reusable home and office containers and the fact that in the US, recycling has not achieved critical scale yet. Regardless of these dynamics, the larger companies in this category do understand the vital importance of providing sustainable alternatives in their packaging. This is illustrated through:

  • Reduction of mass in packaging where over the last 10 – 15 years, 50-60% reductions in plastics weight have occurred across the major players (e.g. Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Nestlé Waters North America).
  • Support of Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) for recycling (Nestlé Waters North America).
  • Recycled content where the major players have implemented or have committed to immediate to short term recycled content levels anywhere from 10 – 25% in their containers (e.g. Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Nestlé Waters North America).
  • The use of bio-based resins from renewable feedstock (i.e. sugar cane and switch grass) exemplified by Coca-Cola’s newest PlantBottle® launch in early 2011 that uses 30% PET from renewable plant feedstock. Pepsi-Cola subsequently announced the launching of a 100% plant feedstock bio-based bottle.

Given the more recent consumer scrutiny over the sustainable nature of bottled water, the industry has responded in hyper-drive and on multiple fronts to demonstrate their corporate commitments to improve their sustainability and reduce their carbon footprint. These measures have included:

  • Stated water use ratios in corporate websites that range in the 1.5 – 1.6 liters of total water used for every liter of finished product produced (Nestlé Waters N.A. and Coca-Cola). Pepsi-Cola reported a 19.5% reduction in water use intensity against 2006.
  • Reduction in carbon footprints (i.e. Coca-Cola Enterprises has committed to “Reduce the overall carbon footprint of our business operations by 15 percent by 2020, as compared to our 2007 baseline” from its 2009 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (CRS) report). Pepsi-Cola has also committed to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) in U.S. operations in their 2010 annual report and Nestlé Waters North America reports a 12% overall reduction in GHG from 2006 through 2009 from their website.
  • Significant reduction in mass of primary and secondary packaging materials coupled with furthered movement into higher levels of recycled content in PET (rPET).

Raghavendran Badrinath, subject-matter expert at Zintro.com and Director and Owner at Vincent, a Real Estate and Food and Beverage research and consulting firm founded in 1994, notes that the ecological responsibility technically falls into the hands of the consumer. While manufacturers can make efforts to produce packaging that is environmentally-friendly in terms of using recycled materials, it’s ultimately up to the consumer how he or she disposes of an empty water bottle.

Angela Stringfellow writes for Zintro which connects Clients (expert-seekers) with subject matter experts for consulting engagements. This article was reprinted with permission from Zintro. She is a consultant at Solvate.

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2 thoughts on “Ecological Impact of the Bottled Water Industry

  1. This article completely misses a major concern regarding bottled water: energy use. It can cost thousands of times more energy to produce the bottles and transport the bottled water to the point of sale; than it costs to supply an equivalent amount of water to the consumer through the already-existing municipal water system. Installing a simple filter on your tap, and re-filling your own reusable water bottle to take with you; represents a far greener approach than commercial bottled water could ever dream to achieve.

    All the talk about reduction in plastic content of bottles, increases in recycling rates, etc.; is mere fluff in comparison to the energy use elephant in the room.

    And why are Nestlé Waters N.A. and Coca-Cola so proud about using ‘only’ 1.5 – 1.6 liters of total water for every liter of bottled water they produce?? At my home tap, I use only one liter of water to produce every liter of water for my re-usable bottle.

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