Bottled Water – Cost and Sustainability

Thirsty Americans shelled out $13 billion for 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2014, an increase in sales and consumption.1 Is this good or bad news?

6 Single-Serving Bottles of Water

A possible upside is that drinking more water and less soda is good for our health, providing that is what we are actually doing. The downside is that as bottled water consumption increases so does its environmental impact, which is not good for people or the planet.

When I began this blog in June 2012, composting and bottled water were on my mind and became the topics of the first several posts. A few months ago, I revisited composting and in the next two posts, we will return to the subject of bottled water.

Bottled Water – Industry Snapshot

Bottled water, once considered a niche product, now accounts for 17.8% of the packaged beverage market. By 2016, bottled water industry representatives are anticipating bottled water will overtake carbonated soft drinks and become the number one packaged beverage sold in the U.S.1

In 1976, annual consumption of bottled water was 1.6 gallons per capita, a mere blip on beverage sales charts. By 1995, bottled water consumption had increased to 11.6 gallons and continued to rise each year. Annual bottled water consumption reached 34.2 gallons per capita in 2014.1, 2, 6

Bottled water sold in single-serve PET plastic bottles topped all other beverage categories in 2014.1

“Every segment of the bottled water industry is growing and we consider bottled water to be the most successful mass-market beverage category in the U.S.”

—Gary Hemphill, Managing Director of Research, Beverage Marketing Corporation 1

Bottled Water – Cost

Shrink-Wrapped Single-Serving Bottles of Bottled Water on PalletTo provide a real life comparison of the cost of bottled water versus tap water, I conducted an informal study by surveying bottled water prices at my local grocery market and reviewing a year’s worth of my household water bills.

Bottled water prices varied and so did my water bills so I used the average figures. I also calculated the cost of tap water versus bottled water for my two-person household for one year based on each of us drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.

Water Type  Cost per Gallon Yearly Cost for 2 People
Tap Water $0.03 / gallon $10.65 / year
1-Gallon Jug Bottled Water $1.41 / gallon $514.65 / year
Case (24) 16.9-Ounce Bottled Water $1.44 / gallon $525.60 / year

In the above scenario, drinking bottled water would cost over $500 more a year than tap water. Taking the long view, drinking bottled water over 20 years would cost an additional $10,000 for just two people! Tap water is a great deal.

You too can easily conduct your own study to find out how much your bottled water habit is costing you or figure out how much you are saving by drinking water from the tap.

Bottled Water – Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of bottled water includes extracting, refining, and processing petroleum to make plastic feedstock, manufacturing plastic bottles, transporting empty bottles, transporting water, cleaning bottles, processing water, filling bottles, transporting filled bottles, and refrigerating some bottles. Regardless of whether empty water bottles are tossed in the trash or a recycle bin, disposing of them entails more transportation and processing. All this takes energy and water and generates waste and pollution.

This post highlights three aspects of the environmental impact of bottled water. To learn more read the What is the Environmental Impact of Bottled Water? post and check out the resources section below.

Water

Bottled water makers source their water from natural springs, groundwater, and the same municipal water systems that supply our tap water, these sources make up the overall water supply.

It takes water to make bottled water. A 2013 water use study performed on behalf of the International Bottled Water Association found that bottled water facilities used 1.39 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water. 3 This does not include the water used during plastic bottle manufacturing so overall water use is actually higher.

Thus, producing 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2014 required drawing an additional 4.2 billion gallons of water from the overall water supply. That is enough water to meet the daily drinking water needs of 2.1 million people (eight 8-ounce glasses a day).

Using extra water to make bottled water is, well, wasteful. Drawing water from a drought-prone or drought-stricken area to produce bottled water is actively harmful.

Energy

About 96% of the energy (electricity and fuel) consumed by the bottled water industry goes into producing disposable plastic bottles, transporting water by tanker truck, and driving filled bottles from bottling plants to stores, offices, and homes across the country.

In 2014, delivery trucks hit the highways carrying billions of plastic bottles containing 10.9 billion gallons of bottled water weighing in at 87.2 billion pounds, plus the weight of the bottles and packaging. Weight is a key factor in transportation fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Poland Spring Tanker Truck Carrying Water for Bottling - Photo: Portland Press Herald - John Patriquin
Poland Spring Truck Carrying Water for Bottling – Photo: Portland Press Herald – John Patriquin
Waste

Most plastic water bottles belong to the PET bottles and jars category of municipal waste as defined by the U.S. EPA, which is measured and reported by weight. Comparing data from the 2010 and 2012 U.S. EPA municipal waste reports puts plastic bottle recycling in perspective.

PET bottle and jar recycling increased from 29.2% in 2010 to 30.8% in 2012. Unfortunately, PET bottle and jar generation increased too, which resulted in 40 thousands of tons more PET bottles and jars ending up in landfills in 2012 than in 2010, a 2.1% increase.4, 5

Bottled Water – Industry Sustainability Efforts

In an attempt to make bottled water seem more eco-friendly, reduce costs, and gain market share, manufacturers have introduced bottles made with less plastic, or with a percentage of recycled plastic, or from plant-based plastics.

Bottling plants have implemented improvements to reduce water waste. Other supposed innovations include a twistable bottle that takes up less space in a recycle bin, using a box instead of a bottle or making bottles out of food waste from other company divisions.

I have read umpteen articles, web pages, and reports about bottled water pro and con, and have yet to see a statement from anyone claiming bottled water actually improves or is good for the environment. Making bottled water less worse does not make it an environmentally sound or sustainable product.

In the next post, read about the social implications of bottled water.

Related Posts

References

  1. International Bottled Water Association – Bottled Water Sales and Consumption Projected to Increase in 2014, Expected to be the Number One Packaged Drink by 2016, 2014/12/04
  2. ScienceBlogs – Bottled Water Sales: The Shocking Reality, by Peter Gleick, 2013/04/25
  3. International Bottled Water Association – Water Use Benchmarking Study: Executive Summary, prepared by Antea Group, 2013/10/21
  4. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Tables and Figures for 2010, December 2011
  5. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Tables and Figures for 2012, February 2014
  6. International Bottled Water Association – Recent Survey Results find that Americans Should Drink More Water and They Want Bottled Water Readily Available, 2015/01/26

Resources

Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree?

Decorated Artificial Christmas Tree with Wrapped PackagesA whopping 94 million or 78% of all U.S. households will celebrate the 2014 holidays with a Christmas tree of which 8 out of 10 will be artificial trees. 1 Thousands or perhaps millions of additional trees will be displayed in offices, retail stores, factories, restaurants, and public spaces and buildings across the country.

I am a fan of real Christmas trees but over the past few years, I have been wondering if an artificial tree would be more environmentally friendly or if we should forgo a tree altogether. This year, before heading off to buy a Christmas tree, I decided to do some research.

Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees – Environmental Issues and Benefits

Interestingly, the industry websites and life cycle assessment reports I reviewed did not include the environmental impacts of their inputs, for instance, manufacturing pesticides for real trees or extracting materials and manufacturing plastic and steel feedstock for artificial trees.

Real Christmas Trees

Aerial View of Christmas Tree Farm - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

Two of the environmental issues associated with real Christmas trees are:

Pesticides – can harm people (especially those who dispense them), kill surrounding wildlife and beneficial insects, and pollute streams and rivers. Tree farms often grow one specific type of tree (e.g. noble fir) or grow the same type over large areas. Just like with food monocrops, diseases and pests can spread quickly and damage or wipe out entire crops, which leads to increased pesticide use, pests developing resistance, using more powerful pesticides, etc.

Transportation – in 2012, of the 17.3 million Christmas trees cut for sale in the U.S., over 78% were grown in four states: Oregon (37%), North Carolina (25%), Michigan (10%), and Pennsylvania (6%) 2. Each year, diesel semi-trucks emit tons of carbon pollution as they crisscross the country delivering trees to stores and tree lots in every state. Customers add to their tree’s carbon footprint by driving to and from tree lots and stores.

Environmental benefits of real Christmas trees include:

Carbon Sequestration and Oxygen Generation – trees store carbon and produce oxygen.

Renewable Resource – a real Christmas tree is ‘made’ from a tree, which is a renewable resource. Typically, growers plant one to three seedlings for every tree cut down. 3

Recycling – a real Christmas tree is a cradle-to-cradle product meaning that at the end of its useful life gracing your living room or office; it can be recycled and become an input for a new product. For example, chipping trees into mulch and spreading it in yards or on farms nourishes soil for growing new plants, crops, or even Christmas trees.

Artificial Christmas Trees

Artificial Christmas Tree Store Display

Three of the environmental issues associated with artificial Christmas trees are:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – many parts of an artificial Christmas tree are made of PVC, a plastic made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Vinyl in PVC outgases toxic fumes and can contaminate the plastic recycling stream.

Transportation – according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 80% of the artificial trees bought in the U.S. are manufactured in China. 3, 4 Trees are packed in containers and shipped overseas via cargo ships burning enormous amounts of fossil fuel and contributing to air and water pollution. Upon arrival, trees are transported to online store warehouses and retail stores all over the country using the same diesel-powered trucks that deliver real Christmas trees. Fortunately, after the first year, customers who reuse their trees have zero travel emissions.

Waste – an artificial tree is a cradle-to-grave product, meaning that after its useful life it cannot be recycled into an input for a new product and thus becomes waste. Technically; PVC is recyclable, however recycling it is a difficult and costly process. Regardless, it is impossible to separate the materials that make up an artificial Christmas tree so 100% of discarded trees end up in landfills.

I have not found any article or report that states artificial Christmas trees are good for the environment, yet they do have one potential benefit, reuse.

Reuse – there is no consensus on how many years an artificial Christmas tree must be reused for its environmental impact to break even with or be better than a real tree, the longer the better. The American Christmas Tree Association recommends reusing an artificial tree for at least 9 years. 5 I wonder how many artificial trees are reused for a decade or longer.

The Bottom Line

Both real and artificial trees share a common environmental issue, which is transportation. Although production and use of pesticides on real trees is a concern, it is likely far outweighed by the environmental damage associated with extracting materials and manufacturing inputs for artificial trees. Real and artificial trees can both end up in a landfill, but only the real tree can be recycled.

Cut Christmas Trees Loaded on Trucks - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

Of course, skipping a tree is the greenest choice, but Christmas trees are traditional and beautiful so that seems too drastic, at least for now. I think the environmental impact of extracting materials and manufacturing the steel and plastic used to make artificial trees tips the green scale in favor of real trees.

We can make our real or artificial Christmas tree purchase more environmentally friendly by keeping the following three things in mind.

  1. Real tree buyers do not buy a flocked tree because it cannot be recycled, select a tree stand built to last, and make sure your tree gets recycled after the holidays.
  2. Artificial tree buyers select a tree that is well made, and one you really like and are willing to use for at least a decade, preferably longer.
  3. Real and artificial tree buyers shop close to home.

This year, we continued our family tradition of real Christmas trees. We bought our tree at a nursery about 1 ½  miles from our house and ran another errand on the way. Our tree stand is in its third decade. After the holidays, our tree will be recycled in our yard with trees from other Christmases past.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that organically grown and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified Christmas trees do exist. They represent a tiny fraction of the Christmas tree market and are not available where I live, but it is something to aspire to in years to come.

A Tree for a Tree

Real and artificial Christmas tree enthusiasts, I propose a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree. Each year we buy a real or artificial tree or put up an existing artificial tree, let’s plant a new tree in our yard, a park, or a forest.

Noble Fir Tree Branches with Needles - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

I am planting a tiny cypress seedling rescued from a street median in our yard.

Nurseries offer tree seedlings and trees in a variety of sizes and price ranges so you are sure to find something to fit your yard or patio and your wallet. If you do not have a place to plant a tree or place a potted tree, type “plant a tree” in your web browser to locate an organization that will happily plant a tree on your behalf for a small donation.

Imagine planting 94 million-plus trees every year! What a terrific gift for the Earth and everyone living on it.

Happy Holidays.

Related Posts

References

  1. American Christmas Tree Association – Numbers Don’t Lie–Christmas Trees Remain the Centerpiece of U.S. Holiday Celebrations, December 11, 2014
  2. National Christmas Tree Association – States by Total Trees Harvested (based on data from USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture)
  3. National Christmas Tree Association – Quick Tree Facts
  4. U.S. Census Bureau – Facts for Features: The 2012 Holiday Season
  5. American Christmas Tree Association – Choosing an Artificial or Real Christmas Tree? — Either Way, Both are Green (link not valid as of September 2016)

Resources