Around 320 billion litres of bottled water are consumed worldwide each year and the industry is worth around $195 billion. But the bottled water industry is costing us. The plastic bottled water has an incredibly high cost on the environment in terms of carbon footprint, pollution and effects on fast-depleting water supplies. With global consumption of bottled water rapidly increasing, nearly trebling between 2000-2014, it’s time we addressed this issue and looked into sustainable alternatives.
Carbon footprint in production
One of the challenges with bottled water is the effect it has on the environment in terms of bottling and shipping. For a start, most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a single-use plastic comprised of non-renewable fossil fuels. When energy used to capture, treat, refrigerate and transport the water is taken into account, we can get an idea of the true costs. Research has shown that a single 500ml bottle of water has a carbon footprint of 82.8g of CO2. That’s roughly the same as a car travelling half a kilometre.
The Pacific Institute calculated in 2006 that it was taking 17 million barrels of oil (excluding transportation costs!) to produce bottled water for annual US consumption. This was producing 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 (the same as the annual amount for 400,000 vehicles). Given that global bottled water consumption is around ten times that of US consumption in 2006, it is using up somewhere in the region of 170 million barrels of oil a year, before we account for distribution.
Recycling and waste
Another ongoing problem is the pollution caused by improper disposal of used plastic bottles. Although bottles can be reused, figures show that only around 20% of used bottles end up being properly recycled. The rest end up in landfills or polluting rivers and oceans. In the US alone, around 22 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills or incinerators each year. With bottles taking anything from between 400 to 1000 years to degrade, this can lead to toxic chemicals being released into the soil.
Many discarded bottles end up in waterways which can have a devastating effect on marine life. Up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in oceans each year, killing over a million marine creatures. The likes of sea turtles can choke on large plastic parts and also ingest harmful nanoscopic particles shed from polyethylene substances.
Effects on water supplies
The bottled water industry affects the supply of water in two ways. Firstly, by depleting supplies from the world’s wells and aquifers in order to source the product. This often occurs in countries where locals depend upon water sources for their survival. For example, Fiji is a major source for the bottled water industry yet rural Fijian communities are reliant on these water supplies and there are many Fijians without access to clean water.
Secondly, there is the issue of the amount of water used in production. Many industries have come under criticism for being too water-intensive. While the plastic bottled water industry water footprint is some way short of a number of other industrial and agricultural products, it still uses up around 3 litres per litre of water for sale, with some sources calculating the figure as high as 6.74 litres.
What can be done about it?
We don’t have to be reliant on environmentally-damaging bottled water to satisfy our drinking water needs. There are numerous studies to show that tap water is no less healthy and not that different in quality to bottled water. However, if you are unsure or not keen on drinking tap water, you can invest in a water purification system such as SolarAQ to give you a safe and sustainable supply of drinking water. SolarAQ uses technology to convert salt water and untreated freshwater into an affordable drinking water supply. The system runs on renewable energy and has no impact on the ecosystem. Systems such as these, which are utilizing new technological solutions to combat the global water challenges facing us all, could be the best solution for our drinking water needs of the future.