Bottled Water: A Call For Change

In a call for change, Waiakea founder Ryan Emmons talks about bottled water, sustainability, and what we can do to try and change the beverage industry for the better in a recent feature on Environmental Leader:

"The sustainability of bottled water has been a consistently tested and embittered subject for a variety of reasons. Issues with its packaging and sourcing have remained high profile, most specifically the repurposing of public water for profits by some of the largest corporations in the world. Thus, many brand bottled water as an unnecessary luxury that privatizes a God given right. However, not all bottled water is created equal, and not all of it is evil.

Let me be forthright. I am the CEO of a bottled water company, albeit an altruistic one. I am someone who has always been deeply passionate about sustainable living. I care about the planet and consistently find myself thinking about our future. The reality is this- bottled water is not going away.

The Reality of Clean Water

Throughout the world, and even in places throughout the U.S., bottled water represents a necessary and safe source of drinking water when municipal systems are not reliable. Last April, in the industrial city of Lanzhou in the north-west, a leak from an oil company’s pipeline poisoned tap water for 2.4m locals with carcinogenic benzene. Here in the U.S. we often take our tap water for granted, yet a carefully researched, documented and peer-reviewed study by the National Resources Defense Council found that in 19 U.S. cities pollution and deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing are posing health risks for residents. Don’t take this the wrong way. I am not condemning tap water. I drink and use tap water daily and I am lucky to be able to do so, the problem is that this is not the case everywhere.

(It also needs to be said that if my local municipality does have a sustainable and clean water supply, it makes no sense for me to purchase a bottle of water that simply bottles and resells that same tap water, unless it's out of convenience. I understand people’s frustration with this. However, many single sourced natural bottled waters have associated health benefits that tap does not, whether it’s in the form of natural minerals or alkalinity. Conversely, the recent case of Niagara Bottling company recalling 14 of its bottled water brands due to fear of E. coli contamination shows that even bottled water is at risk. Vigilance on part of Niagara resulted in no reported illnesses, and after the voluntary recall, the spring that initially indicated an E. coli contamination in fact was not.)

One of the reasons why my company Waiakea spends a significant % of its revenue on clean water projects in rural Africa, such as pump/well and sanitation development, is because these people lack water availability, infrastructure and education unlike the aforementioned, and bottled water isn’t even an option. At the end of the day 783 million people do not have access to clean and safe water and 37% of those people live in Sub-Saharan Africa. This will increase dramatically over the next 10 years.

The stark reality is easily reflected in average daily per capita water consumption figures. One of the countries we work most actively in is Malawi, where people have an average daily water use of around 15-20 liters. To give you some perspective, Americans use on average more than 176 GALLONS per day, or about 666 liters, when all is said and done.

Water Consumption Habits - A Dire Problem

This brings me to water use in the United States, specifically California. The ongoing California drought has recently received international media attention after a series of NASA photos and reports projected California would run out of water in the next two decades (I still can’t believe it took this long to acknowledge the drought was a severe issue).

Guess who has been thrown into the spotlight once again. Bottled water.

Bottling water in the midst of water scarcity is undoubtedly odd, but it is agriculture and industry that we must address. At the very least, bottled water is being wholly consumed and utilized, not wasted.

Per capita daily water use in the drought stricken California capital of Sacramento is over 279 gallons. This is just individual use, not agriculture or industry. In total, California’s use is around 38 billion gallons per day, or about 13.8 trillion gallons per year. Yes, that's trillion with a T.

Do you know what the annual consumption of bottled water is for the entire United States of America?

10 billion gallons.

While drought media coverage concentrates on implications for people in cities and suburbs, from low flow toilets, to restaurant use, to lawns, to…bottled water, agriculture’s staggering 80% use of California state water is rarely mentioned.

Yes that's 80% of 13.8 trillion, or 11 trillion gallons, per day.

The reality is this: 23 gallons are needed for an ounce of almonds (about 23 nuts and not even the worst crop) while a whopping 106 gallons of water goes into making just one ounce of beef The Los Angeles Times reported recently. This is not sustainable, and water here is clearly undervalued, yet there is no legislative action or vilification whatsoever towards these products or industries.

See my thoughts on Governor Jerry Brown’s water management transparency here: California Water Management Lacks Transparency

Now what does this all mean? Is he really trying to side with the corporate juggernauts and say that bottling water in California is ok? Not at all. I believe we should only bottle water from sources with sustainable yields and recharge rates, and the same can be applied to all other resources. I’m simply trying to lend perspective so we can all see that while bottled water is an easy scapegoat, these other industries and products should be held accountable by the government, its citizens, and media just the same.

"They (Nestlé) ought to be better regulated," says Peter Gleick president of the Pacific Institute and a leading critic of the bottled water industry, though he adds a caveat that shows his understanding of a much larger problem. "But we're not going to solve the drought by not bottling water.”

All Beverages Need Accountability

I’ll give you another example of how bottled water is demonized- bottled water bans. Back in 2013 the University of Vermont was one of the first schools in the country to ban single-use bottled water from campus in a largely publicized media campaign. While the students had good intentions as they sought to reduce plastic entering the waste stream, their lack of research is disheartening.

Here is some food for thought.

Sports drinks, enhanced waters, and soda produce 50% more CO2 per serving than bottled water while juice, beer and milk produce nearly 3x the CO2. Additionally-Milk, coffee, beer, wine, and juice together comprise 28% of a consumer’s total beverage consumption but represent 58% of climate change impact. For these beverages, it takes hundred of liters of water just to produce 1 liter, whereas it only takes 1.32 liters of water and 0.24 mega joules of energy to produce every one liter of finished bottled water, including the liter of water consumed. Not to mention, bottled water only makes up one third of one percent of the U.S. waste stream whereas carbonated beverages represent 4%.

It’s easy to demonize bottled water if you ignore the facts. So what happened at UVM?

The UVM study concluded that there was even more plastic bottles going into the waste stream, and to make matters worse, students were increasingly consuming less healthy, more sugary beverages that increase the likelihood of diabetes and obesity. This was even after the installation of more water filling stations throughout the campus.

Moral of the story- If you are going to try ban and reduce plastic waste, do not ban one category of beverage exclusively, let alone the most healthy and eco-friendly.

But alas, what about glass? The public has been indoctrinated with the idea that glass is superior to PET plastic when discussing total carbon footprint, but in actuality, PET plastic offers a majority of environmental benefits- including requiring 1/2 the amount of energy to produce. Nevertheless, glass is still recycled more often than plastic - although only marginally - and has a longer life cycle, an important factor when considering carbon footprint over the long haul.

That being said, there is still something far superior that harnesses the benefits of both; rPET, or post consumer recycled plastic (recycled PET). In comparison to regular or virgin plastic bottles, 100% RPET bottles -

  • Have 90% less carbon emissions
  • Use 90% less water
  • Use 85% less energy to manufacture
  • Have 90% less carbon emissions

rPET is not cheap, nor is it the final solution. But it is a powerful step in the right direction. The entire bottled water, beverage, and larger CPG industry should diligently be working towards renewable bio-polymers that provide a fully recyclable and naturally biodegradable end-of-life option.

Bottled Water Has To Change

While I have tried to give perspective with some poignant facts, bottled water undoubtedly still has to change, for it will forever be in the media spotlight. Historically, bottled water has been dominated by multinationals who’ve had little incentive for innovation or change if it goes against their bottom line. This refusal to adapt to the times at hand, combined with a lack of transparency and insignificant greenwashing, has forced people to make their own conclusions.

To change these conclusions, I believe we need to hold ourselves to an even higher standard than the rest of the beverage world by attempting to implement the following:

  • 100% rPET or renewable bio-polymers that provide a fully recyclable and naturally biodegradable end-of-life option
  • Manufacturing using renewables
  • Low emission shipping
  • Sustainable sourcing
  • Regional carbon offsets

When all is said and done, sustainability undoubtedly has a price. Is it worth it? I think so. But then again, I’m biased."

-Ryan Emmons
Waiakea Hawaiian Volcanic Water
CEO and Founder

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Sources: The Water Project, Water Technology Project Malawi, Digital VPR: University of Vermont Bottled, NRDC: US Water Drinking Cities, Water Info: Resource Facts, Business Insider: The Real Villian In California Drought, Bottle Bill: Myth Versus Fact