What is the environmental impact of bottled water? It can be challenging to measure, but there is no doubt there is an impact. It is not just the government and environmental groups talking about the environmental impact of bottled water, even the bottled water industry talks about it.
Energy is used during all phases of bottled water production, from making the plastic bottle to transporting it to keeping it cool.
Most of the energy used comes from burning fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, coal) which release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and is a major cause of global warming.
Plastic bottle manufacturing and transporting bottled water account for 96%+ of energy used in bottled water, with transportation being a large variable.
Depending on transportation method and miles traveled, producing and transporting a single 16.9 ounce (1/2 liter) bottle consumes enough energy to run a 100-watt light bulb for 7 to 14 hours. Multiply that by the billions of bottles of water consumed by just Americans in a year and that is a huge amount of energy.
Plastic Water Bottle Manufacturing
- Plastic is made from petroleum a non-renewable fossil fuel. Most single-use water bottles are plastic and made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Larger bottles may be made from polycarbonate, which requires about 40% more energy.
- Water bottles are shipped from the manufacturing plant and then cleaned before bottling.
- Bottle manufacturing represents between 39 – 71% of the energy used in bottled water (varies depending on transportation).
Bottled Water Processing and Bottling
- Water is usually treated prior to bottling which may include filtering, ultraviolet radiation, and reverse osmosis.
- Bottles are filled, sealed, labeled, and packaged for shipping.
Transporting Bottle Water
- A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds which is a lot of weight to move around when you’re talking billions of gallons.
- The energy required to transport bottled water from the bottling plant to the store varies widely and represents 25 – 56 % of the energy used in bottled water.
- Major metropolitan areas are more likely to have a local bottling plant. Bottled water may travel across the country or even across the ocean.
Cooling Bottled Water
- Bottled water is typically transported at room temperature.
- Initially, energy is needed to cool bottled water and then to keep it cool in the store cooler, and later in one’s home or office refrigerator.
Obviously, bottled water uses an enormous amount of water. Bottled water is primarily sourced from municipal (tap water) and surface and ground water systems. Most of it ends up in the bottle but some manufacturing processes use additional water.
Waste and Recycling
I don’t know the amount of waste produced during the manufacturing of plastic bottles and the bottled water process, but you can be sure there is some.
A plastic water bottle will become waste if not recycled. Plastic water bottles are a subset of plastic bottles in general. The two sources cited below show government and plastic bottle industry figures about plastic bottle recycling.
- A report issued by the U.S. EPA (link below) sheds some light on the subject of waste. Plastic water bottles fall into the PET Bottles and Jars category just one category of plastics. In 2010, 2,670 thousands of tons of PET Bottles and Jars were generated of which 780 thousands of tons or 29.2% were recycled and 1,890 thousands of pounds or 70.85% were discarded and ended up in landfills or remained where they were tossed in nature.
- According to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) report 2010 Report on Post-Consumer PET Container Recycling Activity, “The recycling rate for plastic bottles rose 1 percent to reach nearly 29 percent in 2010″.
We can certainly do better than a 29% recycling rate for something that can be conveniently and easily recycled by consumers via curbside collection, municipal recycling containers, and recycling centers.
- Bottled Water Alternatives
- How Much Does Bottled Water Cost?
- Introduction to Single-Serving Bottled Water
- Why Do People Drink Bottled Water and How Much?
- Pacific Institute publication – Energy Implications of Bottled Water by Peter H. Gleick and Heather S. Cooley.
- U.S. EPA webpage – Climate Change Basic Information
- U S. EPA publication – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States Facts and Figures for 2010