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Message in a bottle

The continuing flap over bottled water holds up a mirror to sustainability, from a number of angles.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
If there is a single packaged product that's a microcosm for the inconsistencies, contradictions, and misconceptions that plague the whole notion of sustainability, it is bottled water. That being the case, bottled water offers insights applicable to all packaged products.
Hitting the bottle

The number-one environmental knock against bottled water is that it contributes to plastic pollution, in landfills and waterways and on the ground as litter. Those are legitimate concerns. But it's important to point out that they are merely effects. Some focus should be devoted to the causes behind the effects, which are behavioral. Given that PET is highly recyclable, providing the consumer with incentives to recycle is a self-representing option. And rhetorically, what incentive motivates more than money?  Mandatory deposits would increase recycling by making discarding the bottle tantamount to throwing away money.
Unfortunately, bottle deposit bills are a regulatory approach that's fragmented. Within the states that have them, all cover soft drinks, but bottled water is covered in some, and not in others. A further complication is that many retailers oppose bottle deposits, not wanting the responsibilities attendant to receiving, reimbursement, and storage. Such retailers might be fighting an uphill battle, though, not only due to sustainability, but also due to the companion concept of product stewardship, wherein all members of the supply-chain are expected to contribute to the product's environmental friendliness.

A regulatory approach that's growing, in drip-drip fashion, like Chinese water torture, is the banning of bottled water by municipalities. To date, the list includes San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and Phoenix.  Their initiatives vary, ranging from bans on bottled water at certain city-owned properties and city-held events to the simply symbolic, i.e. bans on bottled water at city council meetings. And there's no need to resort to questioning the motives of public servants; for, more than political opportunism, the bigger problem may be politicians who think that they are promoting sustainability, but lack the broader understanding of the concept.

Are bans an unfair restriction on trade?  How are the bans to be enforced, and is that deployment of manpower an effective use of tax dollars?  What penalties are reasonable for the offense of having a bottle of water? Even if the offense is treated in airport-fashion, wherein the offender is required to discard the bottle onsite, the ultimate disposable falls to the regulating entity.
Which arguments hold water?

There is no product—packaged or not—that's more indispensable than water; in fact, humans will die quicker from thirst than from hunger.  Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, at some point, we must hydrate, if not solely from water then from it as a component of other drinks and foods.
Bottling provides the convenience of portability, allowing the healthful, life-sustaining benefits of water to be enjoyed, whatever the venue.  It therefore makes sense to factor those benefits into the discussion of the sustainability of bottled water. If one agrees that portability is a valuable benefit, providing accessibility to water, the bottle, that is to say, the package, should be given an impartial evaluation and not unjustifiably condemned as a menace to the planet.
Let's say that bottled water was exclusively in glass, a material that is recyclable with the additional benefit of being chemically-inert. But before we concede to its superiority as an option for water, other characteristics warrant consideration. One is the heavier weight, which translates into costlier transportation charges as well as higher fuel usage (and therefore, higher emissions). Then there's the safety factor: glass breaks, not the best tendency, especially regarding children. Yet another shortcoming of glass is that the barrier properties, in this application, constitute overpackaging. And never to be overlooked is the fact that glass is more expensive than PET.  In all, any contention that glass is more sustainable than plastic is not automatically true.

And what of bioplastics, those materials derived from renewable resources? Would bottles made from them put bottled water in good stead with critics? Sidestepping the fact that currently there is no bioplastic that completely replicates PET's recyclability, processability, aesthetics, performance, and price, the answer is: not necessarily.

That's because there will remain those who ask, why expend any resources to the bottling of water? Those who answer in the negative apparently dismiss the above discussions about portability and the relativity of sustainability. Instead, they assert (among other arguments) that portability can be had from individual, refillable containers, with a concurrent gain in sustainability.
Refillables impose planning, in that the consumer has to remember to refill before departing. Furthermore, there are limitations as to how many refillables are practical; for example, on a long car trip or for storage in one's desk at work, one is more likely to choose to have multiple plastic bottles of water, than the equivalent volume in refillables. It comes back to the issue of convenience, and while there are consumers who are willing to make sacrifices for (believed) sustainability, studies show that, on average, that willingness is constrained within cramped boundaries. It's a reality not lost on retailers, by the way; no better example is that Walmart stores sell bottled water (and by the caseloads in Sam's Club stores), scorecard notwithstanding.

There's the allegation of greenwashing made against bottled water, namely that marketers cultivate the misconception that it's more healthful than tap water. That allegation is leveled less stridently these days, thanks to changes made by marketers; however, it's been substituted, in part, by the rap that bottled water is no more healthful than tap.  While that's true, it falsely implies that bottled water has an obligation to be better, although its obligations are to be healthful, safe, and convenient.

Bobbing on a sea of controversy

One article can't include all the issues that swirl around bottled water, but in keeping with the title, the overarching message is this: petroleum-derived plastics are the packaging materials most likely to be attacked for its sustainability, or lack thereof. That's unfortunate, to the extent that such attacks are based on erroneous beliefs. Plastics, as a class, consume a miniscule percent of petroleum, and of that, only a small percent is used for packaging. Additionally, bottles used for water are light-weighted to a greater degree than plastic bottles used for soft drinks, energy drinks, and a host of fortified waters.
In addition to its convenience to consumers, bottled water has humanitarian value. Whenever there is an emergency or disaster that besieges a population, a standard component of relief efforts is the dispensing of bottled water, to alleviate suffering and to minimize the outbreak of diseases.

Yet there are those who wish to sound the death knell for bottled water simply because the bottle is plastic. A poet famously cautioned, "And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." That's good advice to any company that uses plastic packaging in any form, whether flexible or rigid—and that covers a great and growing variety of packaged products. So these issues go beyond bottled water and even beyond the beverage industry.

Ideally, companies will recognize that kinship and keep abreast of sustainability issues on a broader front, in order to formulate plans that have the best chances of success. Let's all drink to that.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax; [email protected].
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