plastic and carton trash in water

In 2019, Americans bought 14.4 billion gallons of bottled water. Just imagine all that packaging, much of which ends up in landfills. Unfortunately, just 27% of PET bottles and jars are recycled. Do boxed waters make a meaningful difference to the environment?

Bottled water has been under significant scrutiny lately for its environmental impact — and for good reason. Oil is the first ingredient in plastic bottles, and they take 700 years to decompose. Our oceans have been filling up with plastics and accumulating throughout the food chain.

Studies show that most shoppers do consider the environment when making purchases, and there has been increasing concern about the impacts of plastic. Are packaged water manufacturers rising to the challenge with eco-friendly packaging? Some major beverage manufacturers, such as Coke and Pepsi, are offering their water products in aluminum cans to attract plastic-weary shoppers, but the big-picture benefits are negligible or even counter-productive.

Is boxed water better?

Boxed Water Is Better released a life cycle study conducted by Anthesis Group that compares the environmental impacts between a 500-milliliter PET plastic bottle, a 500-milliliter aluminum can, and a 500-milliliter carton of Boxed Water™. A life cycle analysis examines the impact of a product throughout its entire life cycle, including raw materials, production, transportation, and product disposal.

Its findings show that the boxed water has a lower environmental impact than bottles and cans when looking at ozone depletion, global warming, smog, and acidification. The aluminum can and boxed water were pretty much tied on fossil fuel use, and cans scored the lowest for eutrophication (which relates to water quality). When comparing plastic bottles with boxed water, the study finds that boxed water has a 36% lower carbon footprint, uses 43% less fossil fuel, and has a 95% lower impact on the ozone.

Keep in mind that not all cartons are created equal. Boxed Water Is Better has made considerable efforts to make their packaging more sustainable. For example, forest management and transportation practices are crucial when considering the entire impact of the box. Boxed Water Is Better is now making its caps from residue waste from FSC-certified sustainably grown trees.

Are water cartons recyclable?

Boxed water is under considerable scrutiny for greenwashing. Many of the claims that it is better are somewhat misleading because this is such a complex topic. One of the key issues is recyclability. Although recycling rates for plastic bottles are low, they are only around 16% for cartons.

Thankfully, more municipalities are recycling cartons than ever before but greater public education is needed to encourage wider participation. If you live in a municipality that doesn’t recycle cartons, encourage your local officials to collect and recycle them.

Although water boxes look like milk cartons, they aren’t. Water boxes are paper cartons lined with polyethylene and aluminum, which complicates the recycling process because they are difficult to get apart. They require special equipment to process, and the amount of plastic and aluminum reclaimed isn’t enough to recycle those materials individually for some recyclers. So, while the paper fiber gets recycled, the lining often ends up either being scrapped or used in low-value products.

By contrast, most aluminum cans can be recycled into cans again and again, in a process known as closed-loop recycling. Also, remember that recycling is a step in the right direction, but the process still requires a lot of energy and water. Just because a product is recyclable doesn’t mean it is inherently sustainable.

Although aluminum is known to be highly recyclable, its mining and processing are problematic. According to a Boxed Water Is Better press release, “Aluminum is also a finite material derived from a mineral called bauxite which is strip-mined, crushed, and smelted in a process that requires tremendous heat, water and energy. It takes approximately 20 tons of bauxite to make 1 ton of aluminum. Thus, more than 120 million tons of bauxite waste is produced annually.”

What alternatives exist to bottled water?

Perhaps the biggest issue with packaged water is that the concept itself is unsustainable. “Our official name is Boxed Water Is Better because refillable options are best,” says Boxed Water CMO, Robert Koenen in a press release. “Still there are many industries – hospitality, travel, entertainment, sports, restaurants and more – that will continue to offer packaged water for the foreseeable future, especially in this pandemic age.”

One of the best strategies for helping the environment is to decrease our consumption and purchase of packaging and to use reusable products whenever possible. When water quality is a concern, compostable or plastic-free water filters are appealing options.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.