Drink Local: Bottled Water’s Dirty Secrets

My previous post detailed the myths vs. realities of bottled water.

Worldwide spending on bottled water tops $100 BILLION per year. How did our marketing industry grow so powerful? How has it convinced millions of people to pay for something that they could get for free? I wish I had the answer. I do know that we could all save money by drinking from the tap instead. 

Need more convincing to kick the disposable water bottle habit? If so, read on! This post delves even deeper into bottled water’s environmental costs. Caution: some of it may make your stomach turn.

Pallets of shrink-wrapped disposable water bottles being prepared for transport, on a large concrete pad, with two green forklifts.
Pallets of disposable water bottles being prepared for transport

Pop Quiz: How much water does it take to produce a 1-liter disposable water bottle?  No, this is not a trick question! Read on to find the answer. 

In Know Your Footprints, we discussed four measures of environmental impact: Waste Footprint, Water Footprint, Carbon Footprint, and Land Footprint. Let’s explore the size of each of these footprints for a disposable water bottle. 

Waste Footprint

According to National Geographic, a whopping 91% of plastic never gets recycled. So more likely than not, the plastic bottle will end up in the trash. Even if the bottle itself gets recycled, its label and cap might not. 

There’s also some waste in the manufacturing process itself. Small amounts of material get discarded each step along the way.

“Transport packaging” adds still more to the waste footprint. Bottles in a multi-pack often stand in a cardboard tray that’s shrink-wrapped in… plastic. Further, a pallet full of multi-packs also gets shink-wrapped in plastic. And a dismal 5.4% of shrink-wrap gets recycled

It comes as no surprise that 90% of the cost of bottled water is its packaging. 

Water Footprint

Doesn’t it seem ironic to discuss the water footprint of… water? The fact is that it takes more water to produce a bottle of water than the bottle contains. 

Just how much depends on your source. According to National Geographic, it takes up to three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water. If you follow that, then the answer to our Pop Quiz is: 50.7. As in, it takes 50.7 oz of water to produce one standard 16.9-oz bottle. 

One Coca-Cola representative stated that Dasani bottling plants use 1.63 liters for every liter of beverage produced. Using that math, it would take 27.5 oz of water to produce a 16.9-oz bottle. That’s a lot lower figure than National Geographic claims. Still, 50+% waste is nothing to sneeze at.

Even worse? Many popular bottled water brands are produced in drought zones like California and Arizona. Or they deplete water from streams that wild species depend on. Then they’re transported to markets that might not have any water shortage. It doesn’t add up no matter which way you look at it. 

Carbon Footprint

Over its entire lifecycle, an average 16.9 oz bottle has a carbon footprint equal to 3 oz carbon dioxide. That includes:

  1. Transporting the raw materials (oil, petroleum, or gas) to the plastic manufacturer 
  2. Manufacturing the plastic resins
  3. Producing a plastic bottle, cap, and label from the resins
  4. Cleaning, filling, storing, and packaging the bottle
  5. Transporting it to the landfill or recycling center.

Consider this. For every plastic bottle you don’t use, the energy saved could power a 60-watt light bulb for six hours. 

Land Footprint

You’d think it wouldn’t take much land to churn out bottled water. But factories need quite a bit of land. And there are separate factories for each step of the process outlined above. Each plant requires land not only for the manufacturing operations. It also needs parking lots, loading docks, and warehousing space. The bottling plants I’ve found acreage information on have been all over the map: 28 acres57 acres, 120 acres.

If I had more time, I’d love to figure out the number of bottling plants and the average acreage of each plant. Needless to say, added together all these factories use a LOT of acres. None of it would be needed if everyone used local water sources instead. Feel free to take a moment now and daydream about how all that land could be better used.

Alternatives

The easiest, cheapest alternative to disposables is to BYOB (bring your own bottle). What about when you’ve forgotten, or your plans have changed and you’re soooo thirsty? 

Unfortunately, there aren’t any non-biodegradable bottles on the market… yet. Thankfully there are some in development. I hope that one day, biodegradable bottles will become mainstream.

  • Choose Water has a recycled paper casing and a plant-based waterproof liner.
  • Paper Water Bottle: I couldn’t find any specifics about what it’s made of, but it is biodegradable. The company holds several patents, so if you’re really curious to learn more you could do a patent search and find out.
  • VeganBottle is made from sugarcane. Of the three, this one looks the most promising because it’s transparent. Part of the appeal (and marketing strategy) behind disposable water bottles is that consumers can see the contents. I can’t imagine that an opaque bottle would have the same appeal. 

Even if there were biodegradable bottles on the market, the best alternative is still free, local water.

What if you’re in a school, airport, gym, or other large building? Keep your eyes open for a drinking fountain and take a few sips as needed. Or if you’re out and about? Many coffee shops, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores will give you a water cup for free if you ask. You’ll still have some waste from the disposable cup, but far less than from a disposable bottle.

Bottom Line

As of 2017, people were buying a million plastic bottles every minute. That’s 20,000 bottles every second! And according to Business Insider, our planet’s residents consume 10% more bottled water each year

Clearly, our current rate of bottled water consumption is unsustainable. So give your tap a try. You’ll save money and a whole lot of pollution to boot.

Thanks for reading, and for taking the next step to becoming SuperGreener!
Multiply your impact by sharing this site with your friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.