Global environmental impact of bottled water is ‘enormous’

Researchers have concluded that satisfying the annual global demand for bottled water consumes the energy equivalent of about 160 million barrels of oil – up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce the equivalent volume of tap water.

Rubbish is scattered along Atalaia Beach in the peak season at Salinopolis, Para, Northern Brazil – the town of 40,000 hosts nearly 300,000 visitors during the summer months. Paulo Santos / Reuters
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The next time you buy a litre of your favourite bottled water, imagine first pouring six other bottles of the stuff down the nearest sink before you even take a sip. Then, picture that crystal-clear bottle with its label evoking idyllic mountain scenery a quarter full with crude oil.

That, according to the Marine Conservation Society, part of a global collaboration of environmental campaigners determined to end our love affair with bottled water, is what it takes to produce the bottle you have in your hand.

The cost? The release into Earth’s hard-pressed atmosphere of more than 160 grammes of the major greenhouse gas carbon dioxide – equivalent to driving almost two kilometres by car.

The industry’s response? That 160 grammes, says the Natural Hydration Council – an industry body “dedicated to researching the science and communicating the facts about healthy hydration” – is “significantly lower than the figure for the beverage sector average”.

Perhaps. But the point, say campaigners, is that this is a product that is entirely unnecessary for anyone with access to potable tap water.

There is, says Lucy Lee, of UK-based wildlife charity WWF, another of the many organisations working to change attitudes towards bottled water, “a legitimate role for bottled water in society, especially in emergency situations or where tap water is non-existent or poor”.

But it is “not a sustainable substitute for tap water supplies and should be the exception rather than the rule”. It is not just the environmental impact of making the bottle that is at stake. Other associated environmental costs vary enormously, depending on the source of the water, method of manufacture and how far the product has to be shipped to different markets, but the overall global impact of bottled water is enormous.

The results of an exhaustive study in 2009, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, make for sobering reading.

Although the conclusions in the paper Energy Implications of Bottled Water are seven years old, the vast increase in global sales since then mean they have even more serious implications today.

According to the industry’s figures, between 2000 and 2005 alone global consumption of bottled water increased more than 50 per cent, from 108 billion litres to 164 billion. In 2009, researchers from California’s Pacific Institute made calculations based on global sales which, by 2007, had reached 200 billion litres.

Calculating the energy costs of making the plastic bottles, processing the water that goes into them and cleaning, filling, sealing, labelling and transporting them to market, the researchers concluded that satisfying the annual global demand for bottled water consumed the energy equivalent of about 160 million barrels of oil – up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce the equivalent volume of tap water.

That is roughly the entire output of oil from the UAE for 55 days and enough to keep the US going for over a week. Put another way, our entirely unnecessary addiction to bottled water is pumping about 20 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year – equivalent to the monthly output of CO2 from powering 20 million homes.

And now, of course, it is so much worse. By 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, the world was drinking more than 282 billion litres of bottled water a year. In the US alone, that adds up to 136 litres per person every year.

With the industry boasting of record growth and predicting that sales of its products will soon overtake those of carbonated soft drinks in the US, simple maths tells us that the environmental impact of bottled water today is at least 40 per cent worse than it was in 2007.

Unsurprisingly, this negative image of bottled water is hotly challenged by the industry which, in the shape of the International Bottled Water Association, is adamant that its product is “a healthy, environmentally friendly drink”.

Healthy, certainly – if sales of bottled water do overtake those of sugary drinks it would clearly good news from a public health perspective.

But Chris Hogan, IBWA’s vice president of communications, also insists that “bottled water’s environmental footprint is the lowest of any packaged beverage”.

According to a study commissioned by the IBWA last year, producing a litre of bottled water takes on average only 1.32 litres of water, including the litre of water consumed, and only 0.24 mega joules of energy – barely sufficient to power a 100 watt light bulb for under an hour.

Most disposable water bottles are made from a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) and the industry says that only “a tiny proportion of the world’s oil is used” to make them.

To be precise, says the British Plastics Federation, all the plastic manufactured in the world each year consumes 4 per cent of global oil production. Typically, only 37 per cent of plastic is used to make packaging of any kind and of this just over 1 per cent is used to make Pet plastic drinks bottles – containing all kinds of drinks, not just water.

So is there any point in ditching bottled water for tap? Small wonder environmentally concerned consumers are confused. But do not be, says Emma Cunningham, senior pollution campaigns officer at the Marine Conservation Society. If it helps to clarify the issue, she says, focus on this single fact: “where tap water is drinkable, bottled water is entirely unnecessary” – which means that whatever the true environmental impact, it is avoidable.

And, of course, the environmental impact of bottled water is not limited to what it costs to make, package and ship it. Although Pet is 100 per cent recyclable, the industry admits that even in countries such as the US, where recycling has been established for years, less than 40 per cent of single-serving bottles are recycled.

“The bottled water industry recognises that recycling rates, although increasing, need to improve,” says the IBWA.

But it is what happens in the meantime to the 60 per cent of bottles that are not recycled that is behind a growing global movement to see sales of bottled water restricted and even banned, with organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society urging consumers to use instead refillable plastic bottles, topped up from the tap.

“If you must buy bottled water, don’t just throw the bottle away,” says Ms Cunningham. “Consider the amount of oil that’s been used to make it, value it as a resource and reuse it, filled with ordinary drinking water. And, if you must throw it away, take it home and make sure it goes to recycling.”

In the US, campaigns such as Think Outside The Bottle, Ban the Bottle and Take Back the Tap have persuaded dozens of organisations, from parks and colleges to entire towns, to promote the use of public water and even to ban sales of the bottled variety.

In the UK, the One Less campaign organised by the Zoological Society of London has brought together nine organisations dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans.

“Plastic pollution is one of the major threats to the ocean,” says ZSL, which runs London Zoo in Regent’s Park. A recent study showed that between 5.5 and 14.6 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the seas every year and, “if nothing changes, by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean”.

A Pet water bottle that finds its way into the sea “will take 450 years to break down into plastic particles” and, “while it floats and degrades, the plastic leaches marine-toxic chemicals into the water, poisoning the ocean and killing marine wildlife”. And from the bottom of the food chain to the top – ultimately, says ZSL, toxins could end up on our plates.

Last year, high-profile Oxford Street store Selfridges agreed to stop selling bottled water, and now the One Less movement has given itself the ambitious task of ridding the whole of London of single-use plastic water bottles by 2021, urging individuals to adopt refillable bottles and businesses to install water fountains. The industry is fighting back against the rising tide of global disapproval – successfully, if those climbing sales figures are anything to go by.

At first glance, Bottled Water Matters appears to be a grassroots web and social media-based defence of the industry in the face of a growing movement to condemn its products as environmentally unsustainable.

In fact, it is a front for the International Bottled Water Association, seeking to recruit consumers as “citizen lobbyists” to press legislators on issues important to the bottled water industry.

College campus bans, it says, “will have negative health and environmental consequences and are not in the public interest”.

In a campus toolkit issued last month to help students “protect your right to purchase bottled water”, it says that “new research shows when bottled water is not available in a vending machine, people choose other packaged beverages, which may contain sugar, caffeine, and other additives”.

All this, say environmental campaigners, is a red herring to draw attention away from the big picture – a picture which, says Corporate Accountability International, part of the drive to persuade consumers to drop bottled water, is thrown into sharp focus by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

About six times the size of England and trapped in a vortex of currents, this is one of several accumulations of circulating rubbish in the world’s oceans comprised mainly of plastic – and, says CAI’s Lauren Derusha, “some of the most common forms of plastic pollution in our oceans and on our beaches are plastic bottles and plastic bottle caps”.

Campaigners say that even in countries such as the UAE, where bottled water is ubiquitous, consumers can make a difference by choosing wisely, because water bottled locally is always going to be better for the environment than imported varieties.

In this respect, the UAE is well served – with locally bottled names including Oasis, Al Ain and Masafi there is no excuse buying international brands.

Researchers at Warwick Business School in the UK took a close look at the supply chain of Los Angeles-based bottled water company Fiji, which sources its “natural artesian water” from the island of Vitu Levu in the South Pacific and sells it around the world as a premium product.

The plastic for the bottles is shipped 12,700 kilometres from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Vitu Levu, the bottle tops travel 7,750km miles from Taiwan and the labels 2,680km miles from New Zealand.

The finished product is then shipped 10,625km to Plano in Texas for distribution – in all, more than 33,755 kilometres of travel.

For the company, all the effort behind this “fairly ridiculous and lengthy supply chain” is well worthwhile – Warwick’s researchers estimated it costs just 22 cents to produce a bottle that in the US sells for between US$2 and US$3. For the environment, however, there is clearly a far less healthy return.