Bottled water boasts lightest environmental impact

by Eric Schroeder
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GREENWICH, CONN. — A new study released earlier this month has found that water, and more specifically, bottled water, has the lightest environmental footprint compared with other packaged beverages. Part of the reason, the study said, is due to differences in packaging weight as well as to differences in additives to other packaged beverages.

Tap water has the lightest footprint, according to the study, followed by tap water consumed in reusable bottles (if used more than 10 times), and then by bottled water.

Nestle Waters North America commissioned the “Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Drinking Water Alternatives and Consumer Beverage Consumption in North America” report. Quantis International, a provider of life cycle analyses and related applications, conducted the report. It is believed to be the first peer-reviewed, comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of water and alternative beverage options, including filtered and un-filtered tap water consumed from reusable plastic, steel and aluminum containers.

The study aimed to identify and compare the environmental impacts of consuming bottled water and several prominent alternatives, to identify the environmental impacts of a consumer’s total beverage consumption and to evaluate the influence of changing bottled water consumption habits.

For its research, Quantis looked at two Nestle water products — a 500-ml “Eco-Shape” bottle and a 3 liter bottle — as well as sports drinks, vitamin-fortified waters, water directly from a tap, tap water from a filtering pitcher, water from a water vending machine, and tap water in three reusable bottle material types (aluminum, plastic and steel).

According to the report, packaging and distribution are key contributors to a beverage’s carbon footprint, and Nestle’s Eco-Shape bottled water was found to have the smallest environmental impact among bottled beverages because the bottles use the least amount of plastic and travel a relatively short distance from source to shelf.

Other findings from the study showed:
• Water is the least environmentally impactful beverage option;
• Water of all types accounts for 41% of a consumer’s total beverage consumption, but represents just 12% of a consumer’s climate change impact;
• Milk, coffee, beer, wine and juice together comprise 28% of a consumer’s total beverage consumption, but represent 58% of climate change impact;
• Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible packaged drink choice;
• Sports drinks, enhanced waters and soda produce nearly 50% more carbon dioxide emissions per serving than bottled water;
• Juice, beer and milk produce nearly three times as many carbon dioxide emissions per serving as bottled water.

“Our results show the importance of communicating more complete messages to consumers on environmental topics,” said Jon Dettling, U.S. director for Quantis International. “The results reinforce the view that tap water has a lighter environmental footprint than bottled water, but also examine a variety of other choices consumers make about their consumption of both water and other beverages. Consumers, retailers and others who have an interest in making a difference for the environment can use these findings to make informed decisions about their choice of beverage, choice among water options, and choice in how much of each they consume.”

Alex McIntosh, director of corporate citizenship for Nestle Waters North America, said participating in the study should help Nestle consider the impacts of beverage options in a fuller context.

“For example, this report indicates that bottled water bans can be counterproductive from an environmental perspective, since research shows if bottled water were not available, two-thirds of people would drink other packaged beverages, like soft drinks and juices, which often have more impact on the environment than bottled water,” Mr. McIntosh said. “More importantly, this report helps direct our efforts of more sustainable product and packaging designs in the future. The study confirms that initiatives such as reducing plastic in our bottles, taking a regional approach to distribution and advocating for comprehensive recycling are the right strategies for our business and for the environment.”

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