A Tale of Two Plastic Bottles at LOHAS Forum

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

During an information-sharing panel at the LOHAS Forum about the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf, many attendees had one simple question: what could they do to help? Charles Hambleton, producer of the documentary The Cove, suggested that anyone wanting to improve the crisis at a systemic level forswear the ubiquitous single-use plastic bottle.

Great idea. And good luck. As attendees we were in fact supplied with, guess what, single-use plastic bottles. But these aren’t just any single-use plastic bottles. These are Naya water bottles, which are made with 100 percent recycled PET. No virgin oil goes into the bottle, Sean Surkis, Naya’s vice president of sales and marketing, later assured me.

Still, it seemed a wasteful option to me, as I self-righteously filled my Klean Kanteen at a water fountain in the hotel lobby. After all, there was plenty of embedded energy in each Naya bottle due to its transportation alone. (Though, Surkis also assured me that the recycling process that Naya employs is not more energy-intensive than creating PET out of virgin stock, and that most of the energy Naya uses in its Montreal facility is powered by hydro.)

That said, consumers still want bottled water. And if they’re going to buy it, then it seems logical that it be served up in a recycled plastic bottle. It still requires petroleum, but not as much as not as directly as, say, a bottle of Dasani or Coke, even if it’s served up in Coca-Cola’s new PlantBottle. Despite being made, in part, from non-petroleum sources, those bottles clearly have a more direct link to the spill in the Gulf because they create ongoing demand for oil. And oil spills. And when it does, it kills.  A company as big and influential as Coca-Cola has a tremendous opportunity here to send a message about our addiction to oil (never mind, for the moment, our addiction to sugar) by taking the lead from Naya and breaking that direct link to fresh petroleum.

And when I asked Tom LaForge, Coca-Cola’s global director of human and cultural insights, why his company uses only 25 percent (by his description — the bottle itself says “up to 30” percent) of this plant-based alternative in its PlantBottle PET bottles, he explained that anything over that percentage causes impurities in the PET recycling stream. I’ve heard similar complaints from people in the recycling industry. Indeed, plant-based bottles and today’s recycling systems seem to mix as well as oil and water, since the alternative plastics disrupt existing processes and lead to great waste of plastic, as recyclers turn away bales of “corrupted” PET. But the bigger question is: why not fix that problem?

Naya’s answer has been to collect petroleum-based bottles for recycling — carefully selecting them for color and other qualities that can muck up the process — and design a way to turn PET bottles back into PET bottles. This part is also unique, as most PET is not actually recycled but is instead downcycled into other products, from carpet to fleece to building material. Or soccer jerseys.

Coca-Cola’s answers could be to just stop using plastic bottles as a means of reducing some of the global demand for oil. Aluminum is an obvious alternative. It’s made relatively cleanly, and can be fully recycled. It’s also lighter than glass. So why not push for more aluminum? LaForge’s volley: not everyone likes to drink out of cans. He said some consumers say the products taste metallic.

That’s interesting, I thought to myself, as I sipped from my metallic water bottle. But you’re Coca-Cola. You hold in your hands a tremendous amount of consumer loyalty. If you decide to move away from plastic and toward more cans, your drinkers will move with you.

To me, this whole metallic taste excuse just doesn’t hold water. And it certainly won’t do anything to reduce our need for oil.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

8 responses

  1. Paranoia, vanity and utter laziness is what drives the bottled water culture. But I also blame these companies for encouraging it. Prior to the mid 90s did anyone EVER carry a bottle of water around? For one thing there were public drinking fountains! Why did this fad catch on? Why do people feel naked without a bottle of water on hand at all times? This problem is purely cultural and only by leading with examples will people start to see out of it. Kudos to you, MC, for brining your own bottle. Unfortunately, we need celebrities to do the same, it's the only way people will start to think it's “cool”

  2. At the GRI Conference in Amsterdam, there was no bottled water in site. Attendees were offered glasses, and in conference rooms, the exhibit hall, and at networking sessions, pitchers of water and glasses were the only option if you wanted water. The bottled water industry has brainwashed us into thinking that bottled water is the “best” option, which is absurd. And if you like sparkling water, why can't we bring back seltzer water back? In Argentina, if you want water “with gas,” you are served a selzer bottle that is just refilled for the next customer. MC, your assessment of Coca-Cola's attitude is spot on–I don't hear people crying about “metallic” beer or soda!

  3. Great post Mary. In past conferences we provided water filters rather than plastic water bottles. The filter company decided not to sponsor this year and Naya is a new company that we decided to try because it has not virgin PET. We totally are with you regarding the use of petroleum and understand it is a very complex issue. It is around us everywhere. It is part of our clothing, cosmetics, food and the food packaging, transportation. We hope we were able to bring some things to light via the conversations and did our best to get ourselves to be as sustainable as possible. All plastic, paper and compost are sorted at the hotel where they are sent to the Boulder recycling center and sold as recycled content. The energy pumping the hotel AC and lighting is offeset via REC's through wind power on Native American lands. We also purchased water credits to offset the water usage of our event through Bonneville Environment Foundation water offsets that buy water rights from farmers in Montana so they dont over water their farms and keep the water in the streams to protect the native aquatic species. The bottled water issue is pretty wacko in the States. Europe and other countries have alternatives that I think are great and I fully agree that we need to stop with the plastic usage and get people to be more responsible for dealing with their own thirst issues in a smart as a community rather than an opportunity for a company to make a buck. The true energy costs it takes to sell bottled water is so high that it is unsustainable and water will be the next huge issue. LOHAS is by no means perfect but certainly are aware of areas we need to improve upon and are open to new suggestions. We realize that LOHAS and overall sustainability is not a journey but a destination and we are enjoying the teachings along the way. Hope to see you next year at the next LOHAS Forum.

  4. There is a big difference between your steel Klean Kanteen and an aluminum bottle. Aluminum bottles certainly are easier to mass produce (they're like a super high-end beer can, and can be made on automated lines) but they must be lined with plastic because aluminum is not a food safe material. My understanding is that aluminum downcycles, both because of the vagaries of the recycling industry and the nature of the material itself. Note how major aluminum bottle makers do not put anything prominent on their bottles to denote what they are made of . . . in stark contrast to every stainless bottle, clearly marked as such.

    Plastic and aluminum are seductive materials for reusable bottle companies for the same reason they are chosen as disposable bottles, high high profit margins. It has nothing to do with the actual utility. There's really only two good choices, glass and stainless steel. The next time you talk to Coke, ask them why my beloved glass Cokes are being imported from Mexico . . . they don't need to invent anything, they need to go back to their original technology.

  5. Hi, aluminum industry here. Cans do not get downcycled. Cans go back into being cans, when we can get them. We actually import used aluminum cans from Mexico because we can't get enough supply in the US. Recycling peaked in the US in 1997 and has only recently inched up again.

    Also, the average aluminum can in the US contains 68% recycled content.

    Every material has it's challenges, steel really hasn't been used for beverages in decades. Glass is heavy and adds significantly to emissions from transportation, plus more and more companies are studying “cube utilization” to make sure the trasport and storage of a package is as efficient as possible.

    We obviously feel that aluminum is the clear winner, but wanted to correct the record on “down cycling.” It is simply not the case with aluminum cans.

    Steve Gardner, VP Communications for the Aluminum Association

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