The Sustainability of Bottled Water

by | Jul 6, 2015

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emmons-ryanThe sustainability of bottled water has been a consistently studied and embittered subject for a variety of reasons. Issues with its packaging and sourcing have remained contentious, most specifically the repurposing of public water for profits by some of the largest corporations in the world. Thus, many believe brand-bottled water as an unnecessary luxury that privatizes a public resource. However, not all bottled water is created equal, and not all of it is evil.

Let me be forthright. I am the CEO of a bottled water company, albeit a responsible one. I am someone who has always been deeply passionate about sustainable living.  I care about the planet and consistently consider our future. But the reality remains: bottled water is not going away. Truthfully, if my local municipality does have a sustainable and clean water supply, it makes no sense for me to purchase a bottle of water that simply bottles and resells that same tap water, unless it is out of convenience. I understand people’s frustration with this. However, many single-sourced natural bottled waters have associated health benefits that tap does not, whether it’s in the form of natural minerals or alkalinity.

Throughout the world, and even in places throughout the United States, bottled water represents a necessary and safe source of drinking water when municipal systems are not reliable. Last April, in the industrial city of Lanzhou in the northwest, a leak from an oil company’s pipeline poisoned tap water for 2.4 million locals. It was contaminated with carcinogenic benzene. Here in the United States, we often take our tap water for granted, yet a carefully researched, documented and peer-reviewed study by the National Resources Defense Council found that in 19 US cities, pollution, as well as deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing are posing health risks for residents. Don’t take this the wrong way. I am not condemning tap water. I drink and use tap water daily, and I am lucky to be able to do so. The problem is this is not the case everywhere.

One of the reasons why my company spends a significant percentage of its revenue on clean water projects in rural Africa, such as pump/well and sanitation development, is because these people lack water availability, infrastructure and education, unlike the aforementioned, and bottled water isn’t an option for them. At the end of the day, a reported 783 million people do not have access to clean and safe water and 37 percent of those people live in Sub-Saharan Africa. What’s worse is this number will increase dramatically over the next 10 years.

The stark reality is easily reflected in average daily per capita water consumption figures. One of the countries we work most actively in is Malawi, where people have an average daily water use of around 15 to 20 liters. To give you some perspective, Americans use on average more than 176 gallons per day, or about 666 liters.

This brings me to water use in the United States, specifically California. The ongoing California drought has recently received international media attention after a series of Nasa photos and reports projected California would run out of water in the next two decades. Guess who has been thrown into the spotlight once again? Bottled water.

Bottling water in the midst of water scarcity is undoubtedly odd, but it is agriculture and industry that we must address. At the very least, bottled water is being wholly consumed and utilized, not wasted. Records indicate that per capita daily water use in the drought stricken California capital of Sacramento is over 279 gallons. This is just individual use, not agriculture or industry. In total, California’s use is around 38 billion gallons per day, or about 13.8 trillion gallons per year. Yes, that’s trillion with a “T.”

Do you know what the annual consumption of bottled water is for the entire United States of America? Ten billion gallons. While drought media coverage concentrates on implications for people in cities and suburbs, from low-flow toilets, to restaurant use, to lawns, to… bottled water, agriculture’s staggering 80 percent use of California state water is rarely mentioned. Remember, that is 80 percent of 13.8 trillion, or 11 trillion gallons, per day.

Here’s another fact: 23 gallons of water are needed for an ounce of almonds (about 23 nuts) while a whopping 106 gallons of water goes into making just one ounce of beef, the Los Angeles Times reported recently. This is not sustainable, and water here is clearly undervalued, yet there is no legislative action or vilification whatsoever toward these products or industries.

What does this all mean? Am I really trying to side with the corporate juggernauts and say that bottling water in California is okay? Not at all. I believe we should only bottle water from sources with sustainable yields and recharge rates, and the same can be applied to all other resources. I’m simply trying to lend perspective so we can see that while bottled water is an easy scapegoat, other industries and products should be held accountable by the government, its citizens and media just the same.

“They [Nestlé] ought to be better regulated,” says Peter Gleick president of the Pacific Institute and a leading critic of the bottled water industry, though he adds a caveat that shows his understanding of a much larger problem. “But we’re not going to solve the drought by not bottling water.”

Here is some additional food for thought:

Data shows sports drinks, enhanced waters and soda produce 50 percent more CO2 per serving than bottled water, while juice, beer and milk produce nearly three times the CO2. Additionally, milk, coffee, beer, wine and juice together comprise 28 percent of a consumer’s total beverage consumption but represent 58 percent of climate change impact, according to statistics. For these beverages, it takes hundred of liters of water just to produce 1 liter of product, whereas it only takes 1.32 liters of water and 0.24 mega joules of energy to produce one liter of finished bottled water, including the liter of water consumed. Not to mention, bottled water only makes up one-third of one percent of the US waste stream, whereas carbonated beverages represent 4 percent.

It’s easy to demonize bottled water if you ignore the facts. A study at the University of Vermont concluded that during the school’s “bottled water ban,” even more plastic bottles went into the waste stream, and to make matters worse, students were increasingly consuming less healthy, more sugary beverages known to increase the likelihood of diabetes and obesity. This was even after the installation of more water filling stations throughout the campus. My point being, if you are going to try ban and reduce plastic waste, do not ban one category of beverage exclusively, let alone the most healthy and eco-friendly one.

And what about glass? The public has been indoctrinated with the idea that glass is superior to PET plastic when discussing total carbon footprint, but in actuality, PET plastic is much more eco-friendly. For one thing, its production requires half the amount of energy required for glass. Nevertheless, glass is still recycled more often than plastic — although only marginally — and has a longer lifecycle, an important factor when considering carbon footprint over the long haul. That being said, there is still something far superior that harnesses the benefits of both: rPET, or post consumer recycled plastic (recycled PET). In comparison to regular or virgin plastic bottles, 100 percent rPET bottles are proven to:

  • have 90 percent less carbon emissions
  • use 90 percent less water
  • use 85 percent less energy to manufacture

rPET is not cheap, nor is it the final solution, but it is a powerful step in the right direction. The entire bottled water, beverage and larger CPG industry should be diligently working toward renewable biopolymers that provide a fully recyclable and naturally biodegradable end-of-life option.

At the end of the day, bottled water needs to evolve. The issue is that the industry has long been dominated by multinationals that have had little incentive for innovation or change, especially when it goes against their bottom line. This refusal to adapt to the times, combined with a lack of transparency and insignificant green-washing, has forced people to make negative conclusions. To change these conclusions, I believe we need to hold ourselves to an even higher standard than the rest of the beverage world by attempting to implement the following:

  • 100 percent rPET or renewable bio-polymers that provide a fully recyclable and naturally biodegradable end-of-life option
  • Manufacturing using renewables
  • Low emission shipping
  • Sustainable sourcing
  • Regional carbon offsets

When all is said and done, sustainability undoubtedly has a price. Is it worth it? I think so. But then again, I’m biased.

Ryan Emmons, one of the youngest CEOs in the beverage industry, founded Waiakea in 2012 as the first Hawaiian volcanic water to adapt a platform of healthy, sustainable and charitable initiatives. Waiakea is the first American premium bottled water certified CarbonNeutral for its variety of eco-initiatives. The company continues to work with CarbonNeutral and Ecometra to measure and reduce the environmental impact of its business and its product to net zero.


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