Showdown: Recyclable versus Reusable Water Bottles

More articles on the controversy surrounding bottled water can be found here!

Water is water, right? Not quite. The container and the source of the beverage distinguishes how water is perceived in the marketplace. Recycled or reusable? Spring or municipal?

The photo is of Nestlé Waters CEO, Kim Jeffrey and myself after the Opening Keynote of the Net Impact Conference 2010, From Source: to Blue Bin. He is holding Nestlé Waters re-source brand recyclable water bottle. I am holding a stainless steel reusable water bottle. In light of the tough questions Jeffrey received about the sustainability of plastic water bottles, I thought it would be a fun and jovial photo to take.

He was a good sport about taking the photo. When I approached Mr. Jeffrey for the photo opportunity, he jokingly stated that his recyclable bottle partially made with recycled plastic has a lower carbon footprint than my reusable bottle made of stainless steel. And as far fetched as it may sound, he is right! Well, at least partially correct.

If each type of bottle was only used once, the recyclable bottle has a lower footprint than the reusable stainless steel, because the steel takes significantly more energy to go from raw material through to beverage container. However, if we add up all the recyclable bottles one person uses throughout the year, the carbon footprint will eventually surpass that of the reusable beverage container. See the classic Ask Pablo column on coffee mugs for an explanation of this thinking.

So which is better, recyclable bottled water or reusable bottles filled with tap water? Jeffrey suggests comparing bottled versus tap water is like comparing apples to oranges. Whether water from a spring source or tap, a molecule of water is still two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms. (Yes, there may or may not be chemical additives to municipal sources.) However pre-packaged water versus from the tap are a separate types of businesses.

Nestlé’s re-source bottled water competes directly against prepackaged beverages, such as soda, energy drinks, and bottled juices etc. The company is in the bottled beverage industry, not the tap water industry. When comparing the health dimension of sustainability, bottled water far outshines the impacts of any other beverage, container included.

But the re-source bottle goes one step further, it’s not just any other bottle, it is partially made of recycled material, with the Nestlé intention and design to be recycled in the future. Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle, sees plastic bottles as solid oil. It is better to have it in the form of bottles, than burned up as a green house gas. At least in its solid form, oil has the potential to be recycled.

Recycling is the arena where Nestlé is making strides. Nestlé, Whole Foods Market, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, and GreenOps have partnered together, to avert plastic bottles going from cradle to grave, to cradle to cradle. This partnership attempts create a supply loop rather than a terminating supply chain. All in hopes to spur recycling.

In the sustainability community, there appears to be general consensus that a reusable water bottle is preferable to one time use recyclable bottle. But isn’t a recyclable bottle consistent with the mantra in, “reduce, reuse, recycle?” Sure, it would be best to first reduce consumption, and reuse materials as much as possible. Recycling, even the tiniest thing as water bottles, also plays a vital role towards a sustainable future.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.