We know throwaway culture is bad – so why is the market for bottled water growing?

bottled water small.pngThis blog was first posted on Business Green. 

We all want to do the right thing when it comes to avoiding unnecessary packaging, but when different materials have different impacts, it can be hard to choose what sort of container has the best environmental credentials. This can be as true for retailers and producers – the people putting material on the shelf – as it is for the consumer choosing what to buy. Which are better, for instance, lightweight plastic bottles that damage the marine environment when mismanaged or high carbon but highly recyclable glass bottles? What about relatively low carbon cartons that are difficult to recycle, compared to aluminium cans that create toxic waste in production but can then be recycled over and over again?

The good news is that there’s at least one area where the right choice should be easy from a consumer point of view, and that’s with water bottles. All we need to do to be sure of doing the right thing is lose the single use bottle altogether. A typical reusable bottle only needs to be refilled around 15 times to have a lower carbon impact than a typical single use water bottle.

There’s nothing stopping us from doing the right thing
We’ve already got everything we need to start drinking water the refillable way: the UK has some of the best quality tap water in the world and it’s getting easier all the time to access on the move. There are a growing number of water fountains springing up in places like train stations and, until they are everywhere, many high street businesses are willing to top up bottles for free. The app Refill lists more than 20,000 refill stations, including at high street chains like Costa, Starbucks and Wetherspoons.

Despite this, most people are still quenching their thirst by reaching for bottled water. We buy twice as much now as we did 15 years ago, and the average UK adult gets through a whopping 150 single use plastic bottles of water every year. People have begun to realise that this can cause problems for the environment – not least when bottles find their way into rivers and seas. In the UK every day, 700,000 plastic bottles are littered, and water bottles account for half of the plastic litter in the Thames.

Beware new materials entering the market
Given justified public outrage about this plastic pollution, though, companies are creating new markets for an ever increasing array of containers for water. Single use cartons, cans and glass bottles are becoming more and more common in the water market, and I hear there’s a new paper-based model on its way.

Some of these are explicitly marketing themselves as better than plastic (and that’s despite the fact that many of the offerings I’ve seen still contain considerable amounts of plastic). But if we don’t need single use plastic bottles for water, we don’t need these containers either. New research from Green Alliance, produced as part of our work for the Circular Economy Task Force, sets out why they are not the solution to protect the environment.

If half the UK’s plastic water bottles were replaced with cans, for instance, mining this additional aluminium could create enough toxic waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall more than six times over each year. Switching to cartons could fill nearly 9,000 bin lorries a year with waste that can’t be recycled to a high level in this country. And, if we replaced plastic with glass, it could generate more than 1.4MtCO2e, equalling the average emissions of 94,538 people in the UK. That’s roughly the number who live in the city of Bath.

What does this mean for business?
Those businesses recognising that the words ‘unnecessary’ and ‘single use’ can also apply to materials other than plastic have a real chance to lead here. Imagine the message supermarkets and shops could send if they installed a water fountain next to their meal deals and offered an extra 50p discount to those using refillables. If the consumer struggled to make a decision before, the choice should become easier.

Beyond water bottles, though, I think the message is clear (and can even be put into a catchy rhyme): simple substitution is not the solution to plastic pollution. We shouldn’t pretend it is. Unnecessary packaging of all kinds should be phased out and decisions about alternative materials and systems should be taken after careful consideration of all environmental consequences. We need to act quickly to solve the problems associated with plastic but every care must be taken to avoid simply shifting the environmental burdens elsewhere.

Image from Green Alliance’s new infographic: Losing the bottle: why we don’t need single use containers for water

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