This article by Oliver Balch originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jul/09/bottled-water-shipped-halfway-round--world-madness
Globally, we now drink as much packaged water as we do milk. At 30 litres per person per year, bottled water is the second most popular liquid refreshment after carbonated drinks – a market that it is set to supplant carbonates this year if predictions prove correct.
Bottled water’s global boom is arguably driven by fear, firstly among developing world consumers who worry about water quality from the tap, and secondly among developed world consumers about the health impacts of sugary drinks.
Yet the prospect of global sales hitting 233bn litres this year brings another set of fears. “The problems of waste, inequity, high economic costs and impacts on local water resources are intrinsic to the entire industry,” says Peter Gleick, president of the US-based Pacific Institute and author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water.
The zero-sense game
The most obvious sustainability black mark against the bottled water industry relates to imports. The branding for bottled waters is linked to their place of origin: for Evian, owned by French multinational Danone, it’s the “pristine peaks of the French Alps”; for Italy’s San Pellegrino, its “terroir” is the mountains of Lombardy.
Yet it doesn’t need an environmentalist to tell us that carting water from one country to another in plastic bottles makes zero sense. “If you’re a business in the UK and you’re not selling British water, the first question is ‘why?’,” says Karen Lynch, chief executive of Belu, a UK-based bottled water producer. “Why incur the food miles when we have got a beautiful, abundant source of mineral water?”
Over one fifth (22%) of water sold in the UK is sourced overseas, according to the Natural Hydration Council, a business membership group. Most comes from northern Europe, although some from as far away as Fiji or the Himalayas.
Logistical changes by some importers are reducing their carbon footprint to a small extent. Evian and Volvic factories on the continent have their own private train stations, for example, meaning over two-thirds (69%) of bottles arrive by rail in the UK, according to a Danone spokesperson.
Importing bottled water could be excused if domestic tap water was not potable or is insufficient for immediate needs, as is the case in some Pacific Islands during drought. Neither holds for the UK, however.
“My understanding is that we could absolutely cater for our current needs,” says Jo Jacobius, director of British Bottled Water Producers. In other words, there’s more than enough water in the UK to mean that we shouldn’t need to import.
Conservation represents an additional environmental argument for buying British, she maintains. Strict health and safety regulations mean UK producers are obliged to keep their water sources “completely unpolluted” or risk lose their operating licence.
“UK- based bottled water producers are having to keep huge acreages of land clean and green, so the water is pristine, as it needs to be by law,” says Jacobius.
Take Highland Spring, a Scottish bottled water firm. The company permits no farming, agricultural spraying, building or habitation in its privately owned catchment areas in the Ochil Hills of Perthshire. “It has been kept free from pesticides and pollution for almost three decades [which] has earned the land organic status,” says a company spokesperson.
The same strict regulatory oversight should act as a guarantee against the over-extraction of water, leaving water sources scarce or prejudicing water access for other local users. Yet that’s not always the case. Earlier this year, Swiss-based Nestlé came under fire from protesters in drought-hit California after reports that it was still extracting water 27 years after its permit had expired.
Bottled water isn’t just about the water. It’s about the bottle too. A sizeable proportion of the industry’s supply-side impacts derive from packaging.
Plastic dominates. The industry’s big players, such as Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are all pursuing efforts to increase recycled content in polyethylene terephthalate (PET). But progress is slow. Coca-Cola, for instance, averages 34% of recycled PET across all its bottled drinks, which include water brands Abbey Well and Glacéau Smartwater in the UK. The figure for Danone’s main water brands is a mere 9%.
Producers say they are hamstrung by supply shortages. That’s partly due to physical infrastructure (there aren’t enough reprocessing plants) and partly due to public behaviour (consumers don’t recycle enough bottles).
Bottled water firms can make a contribution to resolving both issues, either by investing in recycling capacity or running public recycling campaigns. Bar an investment by Coca-Cola Enterprises in Eco Plastics back in 2011, evidence of either is scant.
The industry isn’t without packaging innovations, however. In late 2011, Coca-Cola introduced a plastic bottle with up to 30% organic material. The PlantBottle uses a waste by-product created when processing sugarcane. A new generation of the technology could bring the organic content up to 100%.
Moves to reduce packaging weight represent another innovation. Globally, light-weighting initiatives saw plastic bottles reduce by 47.7% in weight between 2000 and 2011, leading to savings of £3.3bn of PET resin, according to the International Bottled Water Association.
An innovative example comes from Belu, which last year launched a new glass bottle that is 18% lighter and responsible for 11% fewer emissions. The company has not patented the ethical glass technology to encourage uptake by other companies.
“The idea was to create a market from among our competitors in order to incentivise the whole supply chain to work together,” says Lynch of Belu, which worked with Bristol-based glass packaging firm Rawlings to develop the initiative.
Such efforts are making an incremental impact in mitigating the bottled water industry’s carbon impacts, but the fears of environmentalists such as Gleick persist.
According to the author, the only logical solution is to make community water systems safe, inexpensive and reliable. “Until then, efforts to mitigate the impacts of the bottled water industry can be described as finding a better way to do something we shouldn’t have to do at all,” he said.