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Plastic bottles most ‘sustainable’ water packaging option – industry

A study by a packaging consultancy in the US has found that the most “sustainable” option for bottled water is the 500ml polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle.

Conservation group WWF-SA, however, says it is clear the study did not consider the impact of this plastic packaging “once it leaks into the environment”. 

Trayak LLC was commissioned by the United States International Bottled Water Association to conduct a life-cycle assessment of five different industry average packaging formats including the PET water bottle, a PET soda bottle, an aluminium can, a beverage carton and a glass bottle. 

These were analysed on seven different environmental impact categories, with a focus on fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and water use. The study considered the likelihood that each packaging type and material format would be recycled, landfilled, or incinerated based on the current infrastructure in the US.

According to the research, the PET water bottle was identified as “the least environmentally impactful option”, and “therefore the preferred container for packaged water”, while the beverage carton was the second least impactful package across many of the seven indicators and the glass bottle was the most environmentally friendly container.

The chief executive of the Bottled Water Association of South Africa, Charlotte Metcalf, said while the study hasn’t been replicated in South Africa, “we have no reason to believe the outcome would be any different”.

Bottled water, she said, is the “best packaged beverage option for the environment; it has the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages” with the bottles reusable and fully recyclable.

“They are not single-use products. Importantly, by recycling them after reusing them, you reduce their environmental footprint by 25%,” Metcalf added.

But Lorren de Kock, the project manager of the circular plastics economy at conservation group WWF-SA, said it is clear that the life-cycle analysis conducted did not consider the effect of  this packaging once it leaks into the environment. 

“Currently this ‘impact category’ is under development, which could be used in life-cycle analysis to quantify the damage done to the environment by ‘leaked’ plastic packaging. In a developing country context, with limited waste collection and insufficient treatment of this waste via recycling, it is apparent that the environmental impacts of water packaged in plastic would be more than in developed countries,” said De Kock.

“It is also key to ensure that regional data is used for these life-cycle analyses as the results from a life-cycle analysis conducted in the US is not representative of the South African context and the results could be very different.”

Niven Reddy, the Africa regional coordinator for Break Free From Plastic said: “It’s true that we have good recycling rates of PET bottles but that’s because of waste pickers recovering this material with very limited help from the industry to support that collection.

“Just because it’s seen as the ‘most sustainable’ option does not make it good for the environment. It still has quite harmful impacts and therefore the best option is practices that eliminate packaging altogether, such as refillable systems.”

South Africa is the 11th-worst global offender for leaking land-based plastic into the ocean, with an estimated 79 000 tonnes leaking into the environment every year.

According to Harvard University, the entire life cycle of bottled water “uses fossil fuels, contributes to global warming and causes pollution.”

“Society and WWF has to accept that food and beverage packaging is a necessity,” Metcalf said. “Given that unchangeable fact, it is our job, both as corporate citizens and inhabitants of this earth, to minimise our waste and develop and promote smart packaging choices and systems for the environment to promote a circular economy.

“As a developing country, PET collection and recycling rates in South Africa are on par with many developed countries,” she said, adding: “It has become trendy to suggest and use alternatives to PET when it comes to beverage and food packaging in a knee-jerk reaction to plastic bias.”

“Most alternatives mooted in developed countries are not catered for here to be recycled. For example, biodegradable plastic and cartons are not widely recycled here and are mostly sent directly to landfills. Our PET recycling system works in South Africa. Brand owners are designing packaging to be recycled with an end-use in mind, thus closing the loop and supporting a circular economy,” she added.

De Kock said tap water was still the best option based on numerous life-cycle analyses conducted globally in various developed and developing countries, failing which, reusable PET bottles were second best and would have better environmental performance than single-use packaging.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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