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Showdown: Recyclable versus Reusable Water Bottles

| Monday November 1st, 2010 | 10 Comments

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.


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  • Cynthia

    I am sticking to my reusable water bottles. I see no sense in buying bottled water from the store when you can get water from a drinking fountain, the tap, and from a water dispenser from the refrigerator for free. Sometimes I think bottled water is another marketing scam just make a dollar. Not everyone recycles the plastic bottles from bottled water like they are supposed too. Besides I can’t afford to buy bottled water anyways. I would rather spend the money on something else rather than on bottled water.

  • http://www.lastormwater.info LA Stormwater

    Great article! Unfortunately plastic bottles contribute to the pollution of our waters. Reducing consumption and promoting recycling can both help reduce our waste and protect our oceans! To learn more ways on how you can prevent stormwater pollution check out lastormwater.info

  • http://www.packagingrevolution.net Rick LeBlanc

    I really enjoyed this story, and the picture was brilliant. It raises some interesting points about (single trip) recyclable and reusable. I believe it often comes down to not what we believe in, but how we believe in it. If you are going to recycle, recycle all of it. If you are going to reuse, make sure you reuse to the full life of the container. Read my full response at http://packagingrevolution.net/wp-admin/post.php?post=995&action=edit&message=1

    • http://www.jonathanmariano.com Jonathan Mariano

      Hi Rick, Thanks for the comment, and sharing your insightful article. I think the intention is good from Nestle, in attempting to close the loop from cradle to cradle. Now we just need other bottle companies on board!

  • http://www.packagingrevolution.net Rick LeBlanc

    Well, I almost gave the right link. I’ll try again. http://packagingrevolution.net/showdown-recyclable-versus-reusable/

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting. Is Nestle the only major water bottling company that has adopted this method?

  • Jenna

    Very interesting. Is Nestle the only water bottling company that has adopted this method?

  • Brandon

    This article raises some great points, thanks for the post. The important thing to remember about recycling is that it only saves the energy associated with producing the *material*– even if you’re using recycled plastic, you still have to make the *bottle*– and that takes nearly as much energy (and more GHGs) than making the polymer.

    “Recycle” is *last* in the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ trilogy because it is the least effective of the three at reducing environmental impacts. There are real savings to be gained from recycling- but the potential savings are much greater from drinking local water from the tap out of a reusable container.

    See this study from Oregon DEQ for a comprehensive consideration of this question:
    http://www.deq.state.or.us/lq/sw/wasteprevention/drinkingwater.htm