The plastic water bottle industry is booming. Here’s why that’s a huge problem
The bottled water industry is a juggernaut.
More than 1 million bottles of water are sold every minute around the world and the sector shows no sign of slowing down, according to a new report.
Global sales of bottled water are expected to nearly double by 2030.
But the industry’s enormous global success comes at a huge environmental, climate and social cost, according to the report published Thursday by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, which analyzes the industry’s global impacts.
Groundwater extracted to help fill billions of plastic bottles a year poses a potential threat to drinking water resources and feeds the world’s plastic pollution crisis, while the industry’s growth helps distract attention and resources away from funding the public-water infrastructure desperately needed in many countries, according to the report.
One of the fastest-growing sectors in the world
Researchers analyzed data from 109 countries and found that the bottled water industry saw a 73% growth in sales from 2010 to 2020, making it one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.
In 2021, global bottled water sales reached 350 billion liters and were valued at an estimated $270 billion, a figure expected to soar to $500 billion by 2030.
Bottled water is popular throughout the world, with the US, China and Indonesia the largest consumers. Countries in the Global South together represent roughly 60% of the market.
There are significantly different motivations for drinking bottled water, depending on regions, according to the report.
In richer nations, where clean tap water tends to be widely available, bottled water is often seen as something of a “luxury” purchase, regarded as healthier and tastier than tap water, the report notes.
“This perception is fueled by the corporations that promote bottled water as a pure product,” Zeineb Bouhlel, lead author of the report and researcher at UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, told CNN.
However, in many mid- to low-income countries, it is often linked to a lack of reliable access to safe tap water.
Vladimir Smakhtin, co-author of the report and the former director of the UN water thinktank, told CNN that the industry’s expansion, and its potential to draw focus away from expanding public water infrastructure, may further worsen global inequities when it comes to water access, especially as the climate crisis intensifies.
A spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association told CNN that the industry “supports strong public water systems, which are important for providing citizens with clean and safe drinking water.”
On a global scale, “bottled water is a key to safe drinking water,” the spokesperson said, adding: “For many economically developing countries, bottled water serves as a partial solution when safe drinking water is not available
The association also added that the industry spends “very little on marketing, especially compared to other beverages.”
The main source of bottled water is groundwater, which is rapidly depleting in some parts of the world due to factors such as over-extraction and climate-fueled droughts.
The biggest source of groundwater depletion is agriculture, which uses water for irrigation.
But volumes taken by the bottled water industry can add extra pressure to an already depleting water source. More than 2 billion people globally rely on groundwater for their drinking needs, according to the report.
“While such withdrawals are small in absolute terms, local impacts on water resources may be significant,” the report said.
Some companies are operating in areas where there are already shortages in drinking water.
There are also conflicts with communities worried about potential adverse impacts of bottled water companies’ extraction.
Nestlé Waters North America, for example, now known as BlueTriton Brands, has faced criticism in California over its extraction from the state as it suffers from a protracted drought.
In the US, the report says that in 2020, Nestlé Waters (as it was) extracted 3 million liters each day from Florida Springs, while in France, water company Danone extracted up to 10 million liters a day from Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps.
A spokesperson for Nestlé said: “Responsible water use and water conservation are at the heart of our efforts to build a more efficient business and be responsible stewards.”
Danone had not provided a comment for this story by the time of its publication.
Overall, the report said, there is “little data available on water volumes extracted.”
A lack of groundwater regulation and management in some countries can lead to significant amounts being extracted with little consideration of social and environmental impacts, it found.
The spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association said: “The false claim that bottled water production uses a lot of water is a common myth.”
Referring to the US, the spokesperson said “bottled water production uses an extremely small amount of water – just 0.01%” of the country’s total water usage.
The bottled water industry generated roughly 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, according to the report. This resulted in around 25 million tons of plastic waste — most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills.
The waste pile is so gargantuan that it would be enough to fill a line of 40-ton trucks stretching from New York to Bangkok every year, according to the report.
Fossil fuels are the raw ingredient for the vast majority of plastics, which have a heavy carbon footprint from manufacturing through to disposal. Judith Enck, a former US Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and now president of the group Beyond Plastics, has called plastics “a climate killer.”
If the plastics industry were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to a separate 2021 report.
Around 85% of plastic water bottles, which can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, end up as waste, according to the report.
They also end up in the ocean, adding to a vast swirl of plastic waste that poses a serious threat to marine life.
A study published earlier this month found that the world’s oceans are polluted by a “plastic smog” made up of approximately 171 trillion plastic particles that, if gathered, would weigh around 2.3 million tons.
In the environment, plastic bottles can break down into miniscule particles, called microplastics, which make their way into our food water, posing a potential risk to human health.
Plastic can also leach toxic chemicals, affecting animals that ingest it, contaminating the animal and human food chains.
“It is deeply concerning that we continue to be locked into a system that is so dependent on delivering water through plastic bottles, which contain and leach toxic chemicals,” Therese Karlsson, science and technical advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, who was not involved with the study, told CNN.
The spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association said “environmental stewardship is part of the bottled water industry’s history.” It added that it works with “government, industry, and public interest groups to promote and increase bottled water packaging recycling.”
While there is an ongoing search for greener alternatives to plastic bottles, the report says there’s still no “breakthrough solution.”
Some companies are looking into biodegradable alternatives , which are made from materials other than fossil fuels and break down faster, but Enck said these are unlikely to solve the problem.
“The truth is most bio-based plastics are not biodegradable,” she said, adding that “the one true solution to the plastic pollution crisis is reducing the production and use of single-use plastics” altogether.
Public information about parts of the bottled water industry is limited, fragmented and sometimes inconsistent, according to the report authors, who said the findings should be taken as preliminary.
But, they said, what is clear is that the industry has developed into a major economic sector over the course of a few decades and that bottled water providers have an incentive to increase sales and expand markets.
The report’s authors fear that the impacts of groundwater extraction and plastic pollution from bottled water companies may become worse under a warmer, water-scarce future.
“If you really need to prepare yourself for a warmer future, you need a reliable water supply in your house for everyone,” Smakhtin told CNN.
“If you don’t have that, you are more vulnerable to increase in temperatures. Bottled water will satisfy the thirst, but it will not provide a sustainable solution."
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