BY CHRISTINE UMBRELL
Environmental issues are in the national spotlight, and 56 percent of Americans now say that protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change should be top priorities, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April 2019. A recent survey conducted by Co¬vanta found that 82 percent of Americans want to be more environmen¬tally friendly, and 86 percent believe it’s important to take environmentally friendly actions on a day-to-day basis.
“The number of consumers who are interested in purchasing products that are environmentally sustainable, or that have a good carbon footprint [is growing]—there’s more awareness around that than ever before,” says Laura Stewart, director of communications at the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).
Given this heightened focus on protecting the environ¬ment, members of the bottled water industry are continu¬ing to protect their water resources with unprecedented rigor and are ramping up production of products in envi¬ronmentally friendly containers—by designing containers with less materials and requiring fewer resources, and by incorporating more recycled materials into their bottles, all while encouraging consumers to recycle to help jump-start a circular economy.
Healthier Choices, Healthier Packaging
Americans are increasingly choosing bottled water instead of carbonated soft drinks and fruit drinks, according to recent figures from the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), which show that bottled water has been consumers’ No.1 packaged beverage choice (by volume) since 2016. In 2018, Americans consumed 13.8 billion gallons of bottled water, an increase of 4.9 percent from 2017, according to BMC.
“People are making healthier choices in their diets, so they’re drinking less sugary beverages. One of the conse¬quences of that is they’re choosing bottled water,” says Al Lear, IBWA’s director of science and research. “They may not know that 59 percent less PET [polyethylene tere¬phthalate] plastic is used in bottled water containers when you compare them to soft drink containers. But, by making a healthier choice, people are coincidentally also making a good environmental choice,” says Lear. Soft drinks and other beverages require containers that are made of thicker plastic than water containers due to the carbonation or bottling processes involved in preparing these beverages. “Bottled water containers are 100 percent recyclable—the cap and the bottle—it’s all recyclable,” Lear emphasizes.
Companies that sell bottled water have been continuously improving their containers, reducing the impact those con¬tainers may have on the environment. “Between 2000 and 2014, the average weight of a 16.9-ounce plastic bottle for bottled water declined 51 percent to 9.25 grams,” says Lear. “That’s resulted in savings of 6.2 billion pounds of PET resin during that time period.” Choosing bottled water over other beverages “means you’re selecting a bottle that has less plastic content, less impact on the environment, because you’re saving on pounds of PET resin,” adds Lear.
Of course, PET and recycled PET (rPET) aren’t the only materials bottled water companies use for their prod¬ucts—they also offer containers made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and recycled HDPE (rHDPE), glass, aluminum, and cartons. No matter which option a bottler prefers, they are getting creative in reducing weight, including recycled content, and testing options to further reduce their carbon footprint.
Striving for a Circular Economy
One of the most popular options for bottled water is PET plastic. “PET is a material that can be recycled over and over again,” says Stewart. “There are endless opportu¬nities . . . where the recovered PET bottles go right back into new bottles—and there are other applications,” such as rPET being used in carpeting and apparel. Stewart refers to the process of recycling plastic into new products as “transformative.”
Many bottled water brands have announced plans to further reduce their environmental impact, and several companies have committed to a circular economy. For example, Danone, which produces Evian natural spring water, recently announced a range of steps to ensure its packaging becomes 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Currently, 87 percent of the company’s packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and half of its water volumes are sold in reusable packaging. Danone also announced it is working on an innovation to eliminate nonrecyclable shrink film for multipacks.
And Nestlé Water’s has announced it will “achieve 25 percent recycled plastic across its U.S. domestic portfolio by 2021. The company plans to continue expanding its use of recycled materials in the coming years, further setting an ambition to reach 50 percent recycled plastic by 2025,” according to the company’s website. In addition, Nestlé’s Poland Spring brand made the commitment to convert all its individual-sized still water bottles to 100 percent recycled plastic by 2022.
The goal for many bottled water companies “is to get more material into the recycling system, and that will feed the bottle-to-bottle and circular economy concept,” says Lear.
“Some bottlers are reducing the weight of their bottles and have in recent years reduced the sizes of both caps and labels”—which ultimately impacts the outer packaging, according to Lear. Lighter individual containers means less secondary packaging—which leads to a more efficient fleet. “You can get more product on your truck, and you can ship more product without creating more emissions,” he says.
Beyond the beverage industry, companies are committing to include more recycled content in their products—which means there will be a greater demand for recycled con¬tent. “Just this year alone, there has been a large handful of leading brands that are continuing to commit to not only increasing the content of recycled material in their [products] but also making sure that those products are recyclable,” says Stewart.
Giving Plastics a Second Life
Bottled water companies focused on sustainability are working to educate consumers about why they should shift their mindsets to consider plastic a resource rather than a waste product. “Some people just look at the waste that’s created. But if you got all [the plastic bottles] back—that’s a resource, and people want that resource,” says Lear. “Reclaimers and bottle manufacturers want that material.” The goal is a “bottle-to-bottle” economy. If plastic gets recycled and is put back into the system rather than the waste stream, “it’s a win-win,” Lear adds.
Bottled water companies are recognizing that, when con¬sidering the impact of any container on the environment, it’s important to examine the big picture. A report from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), conducted by Franklin Associates, studied the overall impact of plastics on the environment, compared to other materials. The “Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes in the United States and Canada” (plastics. americanchemistry.com/Reports-and-Publications/LCA-of-Plastic-Packaging-Compared-to-Substitutes.pdf) offers a “theoretical substitution analysis” to assess the environ¬mental impacts of plastics packaging relative to alternative packaging in North America—taking into account energy demand, water consumption, solid waste, global warming potential, eutrophication potential, smog formation poten¬tials, and ozone depletion potential.
The report “looked at the entire life cycle of the plastic packaging versus alternatives. It went through the variety of different kinds of packages, including beverage containers,” says Keith Christman, managing director, plastic markets, for ACC. “And it compared them to alternatives by making some assumptions regarding, ‘If we weren’t using plastic for the container, what would we be using instead, and what would be the impact of those alternatives?’” Alternative bottles included cans, glass bottles, and paperboard containers (e.g., gabletop and bag-in-box cartons, aseptic boxes, and composite cans).
The ACC report concluded that, when comparing materi¬als throughout the entire life cycle of a package, plastics leave a much smaller environmental footprint than alterna¬tives. If consumers weren’t using plastics, they would be using more glass and metal as substitutes.
The most significant finding, according to Christman, is the nearly doubling of greenhouse gas emissions—a major contributor to global warming—that would occur using non-plastic containers. Also troubling are the findings of a dramatic increase in solid waste, water consumption, and acidification. “Across a range of impacts, you see significant increases,” he says.
“In most categories, for most types of packaging, if you’re going to switch to a [non-plastic] alternative, you’re going to be using a material that requires much more mass, and much more material, to get the job done,” Christman explains. On average, the combined weight of alternative materials is about 4.5 times more than the weight of plastic packaging, according to the report. “Alternatives have a much higher environmental impact because they use much more material in the first place. And in most cases, the alternative materials have to be heated up—whether it’s glass, or aluminum, or steel—and melted” in order to be made into a beverage container or other type of packaging. “Plastics don’t have to be heated up to nearly that tempera¬ture, so there’s energy savings, and gas savings, as well.”
Looking specifically at beverage containers, the report noted that alternatives to plastic would produce about 60 percent more gas emissions than plastics. “People should know that there are important tradeoffs as they consider plastics and alternatives,” says Christman. “It’s clear from a lot of these studies that any switch away from plastic packages is likely to dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions, increase waste by 4.5 times, so switching to an alternative is going to make other impacts much worse.”
Although ACC’s research shows that plastic has a smaller environmental footprint than alternative packaging options like cans, glass bottles, and paperboard contain¬ers, some bottled water companies have responded to consumers’ negative attitude toward plastic by offering containers that are perceived as having less of an impact on the environment. And if you don’t consider the full life cycle, you can detect some benefits. For example, a few bottled water companies include aluminum can options, which offer the benefits of being lightweight and airtight. Because they are compact, “more cans fit into a smaller space, and their light weight means less gas to get them from point A to point B,” according to Earth911.com. “Because aluminum isn’t particularly fragile, cans require less cardboard packaging for transport, meaning more room for more cans.” And aluminum cans currently have a higher recycling rate and contain more recycled content than competing packaging types, according to the Alumi¬num Association.
In fact, some bottled water companies are rolling out new aluminum options, even though cans have a bigger envi¬ronmental footprint. Coca Cola recently announced plans to unveil new Dasani packaging and products, including aluminum cans and bottles, as well as new plastic bottles lightweighted to reduce the amount of plastic. In addition, Pepsi has announced that its Aquafina-brand water will soon be sold in aluminum cans at fast food and restaurant chains beginning in 2020.
Glass, while expensive, is environmentally friendly because glass bottles are made from relatively innocuous raw materials and are completely recyclable—if you can find a recycling facility that will take it. Plus, “using recycled glass when making new glass bottles reduces the manufacturer’s carbon footprint—furnaces may run at lower temperatures when recycled glass is used because it is already melted down to the right consistency,” Earth 911 reports.
Cartons also are recyclable and are in high demand to be made into new products; however, they are hard to recycle because not all recycling facilities will accept them. Plastic manufacturers are doing more to ensure materials are recyclable. “U.S. resin manufacturers have set goals to ensure that 100 percent of plastic packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and that all plastic packaging is re-used, recycled, and recovered by 2040,” according to an ACC press release.
The Push for More Recycling and Less Waste
While the evolution to minimize packaging and include more recycled content in containers is good news, there’s plenty more to do to evolve to a truly circular economy. It’s clear from the ACC report that alternatives to plastic “won’t solve the problems” associated with negative envi¬ronmental impacts, says Christman. He cites the inability of rapidly developing countries to properly dispose of waste as a concern.
“The problem we need to solve is keeping plastics, and other trash, out of the environment, and I don’t think changing to alternatives will do that,” says Christman. Switching from plastic to another type of container, with¬out addressing problems with the waste infrastructure and littering, “then you’re likely to end up with those alternative containers in the ocean or on our beaches.”
Despite the perception that bottled water containers comprise a large portion of landfills, studies have shown the PET bottled water containers account for only a small percentage of all drink packaging that isn’t recycled. An IBWA infographic (shown at right) based on data from BMC, NAPCOR, and the Container Recycling Institute shows that PET water bottles make up just 3.3 percent of the drink packaging in U.S. landfills—compared to carbonated PET containers at 13.3 percent, aluminum cans at 7.9 percent, HDPE plastic containers at 4.7 percent, gabletop cartons at 3.5 percent, and aseptic boxes and foil pouches at 0.6 percent.
The fact that too many containers end up in landfills rather than being recycled is indisputable. Some reports indicate that only about 9 percent of all plastics are recycled in the United States each year. Americans recycled 30.3 percent of HDPE bottles and 29.9 percent of PET bottles and jars, according to the most recent “EPA Facts and Figures Report.” And the percentage is much higher for PET bottled water containers in curbside recycling programs: bottled water makes up 54.6 percent of the PET plastic collected in curbside systems throughout the United States. Soda bottles make up only 14.7 percent of the PET plastic collected in curbside programs, according to NAPCOR.
To bolster recycling initiatives and prevent beverage containers from ending up in landfills, Christman sug¬gests that manufacturers, distributors, and consumers adopt more environmentally friendly practices. Im¬provements are needed in the U.S. recycling infrastruc¬ture, he suggests, to “improve recycle rates, to capture more recycled materials.” Both in the United States and abroad, stakeholders should be “making sure we capture and re-use those packages more, particularly in the developing countries that lack waste management,” he says. “That will help further improve the sustainability of those packages.”
Preparing for Government Mandates
In addition to voluntarily adopting “greener” packaging and business practices, some states are contemplating new regulations that would require products sold within their jurisdictions to contain recycled content. In California, for example, legislation passed by the legislature (AB 792) would have required bottles to contain a minimum of 10 percent recycled content, beginning January 1, 2021. And that percentage would have increased to 25 percent on January 1, 2025, and 50 percent by January 1, 2030. Companies that did not comply would have been subject to penalties. On October 12, 2019, Governor Gavin New¬som vetoed AB 792, stating last-minute changes to the bill shifted too much responsibilities away from companies. (For more, see page 6.)
Critics of AB 792, including IBWA and the bottled water industry, and similar proposals say an assumption exists that there’s enough recycled material available to put in the bottles—which could be problematic. IBWA supports reasonable recycled content mandates but notes that cost and contamination are major factors to supply.
The proposed 10 percent goal for 2021 was “most likely achievable,” according to Stewart: “There’s enough supply to be able to manage that.” But, she notes, problems may arise when the minimum rises to 25 or 50 percent recycled content. “There just is not enough supply,” she says. NAPCOR recently published an article with Plastic News indicating a gap in how much plastic is being recycled and how much of that will be available to make new bottles (bit.ly/NAPCOR_PlasticNews). A NAPCOR study found that 48 percent of recycled PET capacity is dedicated to non-bottle applications, such as carpeting, strapping, and textiles. Another 6 percent is dedicated to bottle production, and the remaining 46 percent is operated by “market sellers,” or processors that provide material for any use, according to NAPCOR. And even if that 46 percent all went to bottles, it still would not be enough.
“So, we really need to find ways to replace the supply of PET into the market. PET reclaimers are clamoring for it, and the brands and beverage companies are looking for it,” says Stewart.
Although PET is the most common resin type used in plastic packaging and the most universally accepted plastic in U.S. municipal recycling programs, less than 30 percent of the PET used in bottles and jars is recovered in the United States, and just 6 percent is re-used as rPET in new bottles, according to “Cleaning the rPET Stream: How We Scale Postconsumer Recycled PET in the U.S.,” a report published by Closed Loop Partners (www. closedlooppartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/ CLP-RPET-Report_Public-FINAL2.pdf ). Ideally, demand pull from end users would encourage the recovery and reprocessing of postconsumer recycled PET, according to the study, yet the market is constrained by the ability of suppliers to offer rPET at prices that can compete with virgin PET resin. “If we are ever going to be able to grow the rPET market, we need better solutions that drive efficiencies throughout the process, improve the cost structure of producing rPET, and enhance the material’s overall value,” the report concluded.
The Closed Loop analysis identified a suite of interven¬tions that would greatly improve the cost structure of rPET and benefit materials recovery facilities (MRFs), reprocessors, and end users, with an ultimate result of increasing the recycling rate of PET by 6 percent and close the loop on nearly 80 million pounds of PET bottles each year. These interventions would require new equipment and processes, but may be examined further, according to researchers.
Dedicated to an Eco-Friendly Future
With bottled water companies in particular and consumers in general recognizing the necessity of more sustainable packaging and improved recycling processes, the next few years could see decreases in bottled water packaging mate¬rials and associated greenhouse emissions and increases in the amount of recycled materials produced.
As consumers push for more and improved recycling and distributors and bottled water companies take a more proac¬tive approach, a more sustainable ecosystem is likely to emerge. Challenges will continue—but it’s clear that bottled water companies understand the role they play in creating a greener distribution system. “There are growing pains for this market that will eventually work themselves out,” says Lear, “and it all ends in a circular economy.”
Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia. Email her at [email protected]