Solid Waste & Recycling


On Earth Day, how about we ban bottled water?

They may not deserve my sympathy, but I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the PR people who have to come up with positive news releases for the soft drink and bottled water industry. It must feel a bit like writing ads for tobacco and cigarette companies – there’s a story to tell, but there’s a lot you have to deliberately ignore. I wonder to what extent the people writing the positive stories actually believe what they write.
Earth Day will be celebrated this Friday as it is every year on April 22. I ought to like Earth Day, because I work as a writer and editor in the environmental field, and I share the sentiment that we should stop and recognize our beleaguered mother planet. She certainly deserves a day as much as dubious former rulers and religious figures in whom not everyone believes. Heck, it should be a national holiday.
But I always feel uneasy around Earth Day, in large part because industries like the soft drink industry use it as an opportunity to present their spin. The other day I received the news release below, which perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. I think the best way to present this is for you to simply read it for yourself, and I’ll insert some comments (as “GUY SAYS”) here and there in the text.
Notwithstanding these kinds of misleading news releases, I hope readers really do enjoy Earth Day and try to do something worthwhile for the planet, perhaps by doing less (as in, less shopping). Thinking about the upstream environmental impacts of our consumption, maybe the best way to celebrate Earth Day is simply to not buy anything! (And that includes bottled water.)
Anyway, here’s the news release from the International Bottled Water Association, along with my comments.
International Bottled Water Association
April 18, 2011
On Earth Day 2011, the Bottled Water Industry Can Celebrate Improvements in Recycling Rates, Reduced Plastic Content, and a Smaller Environmental Footprint
GUY SAYS: Reading that headline, you should already have your antenna up.
Alexandria, VA — Commemoration of Earth Day 2011, celebrated on April 22, includes good news for those concerned about recycling empty plastic water bottles. PET plastic bottled water containers are again the single most recycled item in nationwide curbside collection programs, and their recycled rate has grown to 31%. According to International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) President and CEO Joe Doss: “We are really proud to have expanded bottled water’s PET plastic recycling leadership position, and want to recognize the millions of thoughtful bottled water consumers for taking an extra second or two to put their empty plastic bottles in the recycle bin.”
GUY SAYS: The problem with this “positive news” is self-evident. If slightly less than a third of PET bottled water containers are being recycled, then slightly more than two-thirds are not. And this recycling rate (about a third) is typical of soft-drink containers and that rate has stalled and remained stagnant for years. Fact is, curbside recycling can only do so much, and has hit a “wall.” Yet an alternative that captures far more containers exists, and that is deposit-refund systems – a kind of system that, despite being effective, the soft drink and bottled water industry spends a great deal of money and lobbying effort fighting. I tend to be a “glass half full” kind of person, but for me this news release is “two thirds empty.”
This positive news about PET plastic bottle recycling on Earth Day 2011 comes from the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), which completed a major bale study last year in 15 locations in 14 states. The 31% recycling rate is up only slightly since last year, which was 30.9% but a welcome continuation of steady annual increases in the recycling trend line since this analysis commenced in 2004, when the recycling rate for PET plastic bottled water containers stood at 16.62%. The latest data indicates that the recycling rate for PET plastic bottled water containers has nearly doubled in six years.
GUY SAYS: Yes, the rate doubled, and then it flat-lined and has only grown one tenth of one per cent. Are the PR people laughing when they write this stuff? If they’re crying, it’s all the way to the bank.
As for making the plastic bottles lighter, analysis performed by the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC) for IBWA shows that over the past eight years the gram weight of the 16.9 ounce “single serve” bottled water container has dropped by 32.6%. The average PET bottled water container weighed 18.9 grams in 2000 and by 2009, the average amount of PET resin in each bottle has declined to 12.7 grams. In keeping with this year’s Earth Day theme of “A Billion Acts of Green,” BMC estimated that during this time span, more than 1.3 billion pounds of PET resin has been saved by the bottled water industry through container light-weighting. In 2008 alone, the bottled water industry saved 445 million pounds of PET plastic by reducing the weight of its plastic bottles.
GUY SAYS: These lightweighting claims really frost my flakes. It’s grotesque the way the beverage industry asks for kudos for making a small change that saves it money. Big deal. I’d love to see how far a proposed change that might cost the industry money would go. I bet the person proposing the idea would be laughed out of the boardroom. You want to talk about weight? How about we look at the environmental and energy impacts of shipping (very heavy) bottled water in trucks all across North America and around the world, in place of equal or better quality drinking water pumped from municipal systems directly into people’s homes and places of work, at a fraction of the cost. The only thing “lightweight” is the intellect of the people who think this is an impressive claim.
Improved recycling rates and lighter-weight containers are only part of the good news that the bottled water industry includes in its Earth Day 2011 commemoration. Last year, IBWA commissioned a Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) study to determine the environmental footprint of the United States bottled water industry. The results indicate that bottled water has a very small environmental footprint. The study found:
GUY SAYS: Oh my God… I’m taking a deep breath before I read what follows…
• Measurement based on British Thermal Units (BTUs) indicates that the energy consumed to produce small pack water bottled water containers (containers from 8 ounces to 2.5 gallons) amounted to only 0.067 percent of the total energy use in the United States in 2007. Home and Office Delivery (HOD) bottled water (reusable bottles from 2.5 to 5 gallons) energy consumption only amounted to 0.003 percent of the total energy used in the United States in 2007.
GUY SAYS: Um, yeah. How about we look at the consumption of all that non-renewable fossil fuel in making the containers, two thirds of which apparently end up being disposed.
• The small pack and HOD bottled water industries’ combined greenhouse gas/ CO2 emissions amounted to only 0.08 percent of total United States greenhouse gas emissions.
GUY SAYS: I wonder if this includes the trucks delivering it all over the place? And how does that compare to the CO2 emissions of municipal water delivery?
• Bottled water packaging discards accounted for only 0.64 percent of the 169 million tons of total U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) discards in 2007.
GUY SAYS: That sounds impressive until you include volume and not just weight in the equation. A proper and independent activity-based costing would account for those pockets of air in the not-fully-flattened trucks that cause the trucks to “cube out” faster, and also take up valuable landfill space.
• The process and transportation BTU energy use for the bottled water industry was only 0.07 percent of total U.S. BTU primary energy consumption.
GUY SAYS: So making bottled water and hauling it around uses a lot less gas than the total fuel consumption of the entire US economy. Wow! Great accomplishment! You must be really grasping for good news if you had to include that one.
• Greenhouse gas emissions per half gallon of single serve bottled water came to 426.4 grams CO2 equivalent (eq.), which is 75 percent less CO2 eq. per half gallon than orange juice.
GUY SAYS: Um, yeah, but, ah, orange juice is actually something that’s good for you, and that doesn’t flow almost for free out of my kitchen faucet. And orange juice needs to be refrigerated. I have a feeling that the comparison didn’t include frozen orange juice made from concentrate, huh?
• Small pack bottled water generates 46 percent less CO2 eq. when compared to soft drinks also packaged in PET plastic.
GUY SAYS: I love it when the soft drink industry devours its own! (The bottled water companies are largely owned by the soft drink companies, who got into water because they’d already maxed on what the average American stomach can hold in sugared-water.) It’s not lost on me that “carbonated” soft drinks are bubbly because they contain CO2, so it’s kind of obvious that flat water would contain less CO2. (Did you catch that too?)
Franklin Associates, a division of ERG, produced the LCI and prepared a report that quantified the energy requirements, solid waste generation, and greenhouse gas emissions for the production, packaging, transport, and end-of- life management for bottled water consumed in the United States using final data from calendar year 2007.
The environmentally aware actions of many bottled water companies, such as the use of more recycled PET (rPET) in their bottle production, have positively impacted the environmental footprint of the industry and are expected to lower the bottled water industry’s environmental footprint even more in the years ahead.
GUY SAYS: I have a suggestion for the bottled water industry that would really improve their environmental footprint, and that of our entire society: disappear!
The bottled water industry’s momentum toward more recycling and container lightweighting “can be seen as quickly going in the right direction,” says Joe Doss. “These are clear signs of improvement but far more needs to be done with all plastic products and containers,” he said. “Empty water bottles comprise only 1/3 of 1% of the U.S. waste stream according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So even if bottled water containers were to hit a 100% recycle rate, there would still be far too many plastic containers of all kinds in the landfills unless more is done on all fronts. Let’s hope Earth Day 2011 inspires a more comprehensive approach to product recycling then merely focusing solely on one industry.”
GUY SAYS: Actually, I have a different idea. How about lawmakers use this Earth Day to do something really great for the environment, and simply ban bottled water?
703-647-4609 or 703-887-4056
Background on Earth Day:
Earth Day was founded on April 22, 1970 to foster environmental awareness and year-long ecological action worldwide. Through its founding organization, the Earth Day Network, citizens concerned about the environment connect with each to affect change in local, national, and global policies. According to its website, the Earth Day Network includes over 22,000 International organizations in 192 countries, making it the largest civic observance in the world.
Background on IBWA:
Dating back to the early 1800s, the bottled water industry in the United States is a long-standing environmental steward in protecting and preserving both surface water and groundwater resources. As a leader in water resource manaqement, the bottled water industry, through its trade association, the International Bottled Water Association, is the authoritative source of information about all types of bottled waters. Founded in 1958, IBWA’s membership includes U.S. and international bottlers, distributors and suppliers. IBWA is committed to working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates bottled water as a packaged food product, and state governments to set stringent standards for safe, high quality bottled water products. In addition to FDA and state regulations, the Association requires member bottlers to adhere to the IBWA Bottled Water Code of Practice, which mandates additional standards and practices that in some cases are more stringent than federal and state regulations. A key feature of the IBWA Bottled Water Code of Practice is an annual plant inspection by an independent, third party organization. Consumers can contact IBWA at 1-800-WATER-11 or log onto IBWA’s web site ( for more information about bottled water and a list of members’ brands. Media inquiries can be directed to IBWA Vice President of Communications Tom Lauria at 703-647-4609 or
International Bottled Water Association, 1800 Diagonal Road Suite 650, Alexandria, VA 22314 United States

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