Bottled Water and the Damage Done: Coping With Plastic Pollution

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By Adam Allington

Bottled water beats out soda as the best-selling U.S. beverage, but that popularity spotlights the environmental costs of so many plastic bottles being used once and then tossed aside.

Critics contend the ubiquitous bottles are overflowing landfills and clogging up oceans and lakes, all while demanding more oil for plastic and siphoning public water supplies. The backlash has driven dozens of college campuses, as well as a growing number of cities and even national parks, to ban or limit the sale of bottled water.

“I think anybody that walks down the street, in almost any city, can see that we can’t just recycle our way out of this problem,” Nneka Leiba, director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, told Bloomberg Environment.

The large beverage companies maintain that the impacts of more plastic circulating around the world can be mitigating by through better recycling programs, as well packaging innovations such as plant-based PET bottles.

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola set the goal of recycling one bottle or can for every beverage it sells by 2030. PepsiCo Inc. also laid out plans to increase the sustainability of its plastic footprint.

“PepsiCo is already one of the largest purchasers of recycled PET in the consumer goods industry,” said Roberta Barbieri, vice president of global water and environmental solutions at PepsiCo in Purchase, N.Y. “We have set a goal that, by 2025, 100 percent of our packaging will be designed to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable.”

Two Words: Plastic Pollution

Despite the amount of shade being cast at bottled water, the industry keeps booming.

In 2017, 261 billion plastic bottles of water were produced—55 billion in the U.S. alone. That global number could could surge to a 324 billion by 2021, according to the market research firm Euromonitor

“All of that plastic takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuels to make,” said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, an environmental group largely focused on water and climate.

Glieck told Bloomberg Environment it takes about 25 million barrels of oil per year just to produce the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used in most single-used bottles.

“And that doesn’t count the fossil fuels used for transporting, refrigeration, water treatment, labeling. When you factor that in, the number is closer to 60 million barrels,” he said.

The World Health Organization also recently announced a review into the potential risks of plastic in bottled water. The move was in response to a March 2018 analysis of 259 water bottles that found tiny pieces of plastic in more than 90 percent of them.

Recycling Not the Only Solution

The New York City Council is considering limiting the amount of PET in circulation by banning the sale of single-use plastic bottles on public property. Likewise, the City of London Corporation—London’s municipal governing body—announced in January a “significant increase” in the number of drinking fountains in the city as part of its “Plastic Free City” project.

Others say that all the talk of recycling obscures a more important fact: Even when recycled, most PET plastic isn’t turned back into bottles but made into other products, such as clothing or carpet. As a result, making new bottles still requires an ever-increasing supply of fossil fuels.

“We need to find better materials to make bottles that include recycled and renewable content, and of course reduce environmental impacts by making fewer disposable bottles in the first place,” Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, told Bloomberg Environment.

Even in countries with technologically advanced recycling infrastructure, only a small amount of the plastic generated is captured, Hoover said.

“Right now, the recycling rate for the plastics used in these bottles is only about 30 percent, meaning that 70 percent still ends up in landfills. So there is a lot of work to be done before the water bottling sustainability claims are tenable,” Hoover said.

Bottle vs. Tap Economics

“Big Water” has also been singled out for its history of sourcing water, sometimes illegally, in areas that are prone to drought.

In 2015, Starbucks was forced to relocate its Ethos bottled water operations from California to Pennsylvania following public outcry in the midst of ongoing drought.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit in April allowing Swiss-based food giant Nestle to increase the amount of water taken from its White Pine Springs well from 250 gallons a minute up to 400 gallons. If run at maximum capacity, around-the-clock, that translates into 576,000 gallons per day.

The request attracted a record number of public comments—with 80,945 against and 75 in favor.

“This privatization of our public water supplies is becoming an outright epidemic,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Michigan-based nonprofit focusing on water policy. “They more they take, the more it creates this wedge between people and their municipal drinking water supply.”

Kirkwood pointed out that bottled water companies compete directly with municipal systems and cost hundreds of times more than tap water.

Companies Push Back

But beverage companies reject the idea that bottled water represents a kind of existential threat to tap water.

“Effective watershed stewardship has no connection with growth in bottled water market,” Ulrike Sapiro, senior director of water stewardship and agriculture at Coca-Cola Co., told Bloomberg Environment.

By making its 600 bottling plants more efficient, and constantly monitoring the water table, Sapiro said the company has been able to grow its business without competing with local communities.

“The good thing about water, it is indefinitely renewable,” Sapiro said. “The only drawback with water is it doesn’t always come back in the right place, or in the right quality.”

Renewable(ish) Resource

In a public statement, Nestle contended the extra water it pumps out in Michigan will be replenished naturally . It said academic studies show the state is expected to get wetter in the future.

Unfortunately, as a renewable resource, water is not distributed equally. Some nations are forced to import water when domestic sources are not potable or are insufficient for immediate needs, as is the case in some Pacific Islands during drought.

But industry groups bristle at the idea that companies are acting in bad faith instead of simply following conservation rules that are laid out at the state and federal level.

“Ultimately it’s the government’s decision on how to maintain infrastructure so that consumers are sufficiently supplied with safe drinking water,” said Joseph Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria, Va.

“To single out bottled water products and not consider all beverages and industrial water users is bias against a product, which uses water as an ingredient and would create an uneven playing field,” he said.

A Message in a Bottle

Doss also pointed to the utility of bottled water, outside of the marketplace, such as the millions of bottles donated to crisis-stricken communities such as Flint, Mich., as well as ongoing relief in Puerto Rico.

In its most recent annual report, Coca-Cola highlighted the risk of additional capital and regulatory costs to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and “to discourage the use of plastic, including regulations relating to recovery and/or disposal of plastic packaging materials due to environmental concerns,”

“Certainly that is a sensitivity around packaging that we’re trying to respond to,” Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy at Coca-Cola, said.

In October 2017, the environmental group Greenpeace launched a global campaign targeting Coke’s growing plastic footprint.

Jordan said he’s optimistic these concerns can be addressed through innovation, including pilot projects such as Dasani PureFill stations or Coke’s Freestyle fountain machines, which allow customers to pre-pay for a set number of refills, which are then dispensed into a microchipped refillable bottle linked to their account.

“There is a lot of energy around these projects, but certainly a push to recycle more, use less virgin plastic isn’t specific to just bottled water,” he said. “It spans the whole company.”

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