From Evian to Naïve – it’s time to throttle the plastic bottle
Bottled water is often referred to as one of capitalism's greatest mysteries: "the packaging and selling of something that is already freely available" but at what environmental cost?
Bottled water is often referred to as one of capitalism’s greatest mysteries: “the packaging and selling of something that is already freely available”[i]. We spend 10,000 times the amount on water bottles than we would if we just used tap water.[ii] However, 45% of bottled water comes from the municipal water supply, meaning that companies, including Aquafina and Dasani, simply treat tap water and bottle it up.[iii] The world bottled water market represents an annual volume of 89bn liters and is estimated to be worth US$22bn.[iv] The average world consumption of bottled water grows by 7% each year[v] raising questions about the product’s economic and environmental costs. Among the most significant concerns are the resources required to produce the plastic bottles and to deliver filled bottles to consumers, including both energy and water.[vi] Evian (owned by Danone) is number 1 in the world for still water sales by volume.4 Evian will have to adhere to future legislation regarding the consumption of plastic bottles and the process by which these bottles are made.
Danone recently announced it’s new climate policy to coincide with COP21, the United Nations’ conference on climate change.[vii] For the 15 years ahead, they have committed to reducing the carbon intensity of their emissions by 50%. In 2020, Evian will be the first Danone brand to be carbon neutral worldwide.[viii] To achieve this Evian will focus on two key levers to achieve its zero net carbon objective: reducing its carbon footprint and, restoring water-linked ecosystems.
Packaging represents 51% of Evian’s overall carbon footprint.[ix] The majority of the bottles are made out of PET, which cannot be recycled and thus most of the waste goes to landfills[x], if not ending up as litter on land, in rivers and oceans. PET is created from oil. To make the 50 billion plastic PET bottles each year it takes 1.5 million bottles of oil – enough oil to fuel 1 million cars for an entire year. To reduce this consumption, a research center dedicated to improving product packaging is located next to Evian’s bottling plant, focusing on for example, the increased percentage of recycled plastics used in Evian bottles, or the sourcing and use of plant-based plastics. Evian aims to use, on average, 25% of recycled plastics in its bottles by 2020. Another objective is, in collaboration with several other companies, to develop a bottle made of 100% plant-based plastic.
The production of bottled water is also highly inefficient, wasting tremendous amounts of water in the process. In 2011, it took more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (0.1% of annual greenhouse gas emissions) to produce the amount of bottled water required for US consumption[xi]. It also takes energy to run the manufacturing plants and the bottling company and to clean and prepare the water for bottling. This stage of the product’s lifecycle represents 7% of Evian’s carbon footprint[ix] and the Evian plant, managed to reduce its energy consumption by 24.5% between 2008 and 2015 through efficiency savings.
Energy is required to ship the water once it is bottled. The Evian plant is equipped with a railway station, allowing 60% of its products to be shipped by train. Transport represents 42% of Evian’s total carbon footprint.[ix] Following a policy of continuous improvement, the focus over the coming years will be to develop a multi-mode transport solution so as to further increase the use of train freight.
In parallel of its carbon footprint reduction, Evian has been committed to protecting vital wetlands throughout the world via restoring mangroves via the Livelihoods Carbon Fund since 2008 in Senegal, India and Indonesia. Mangrove trees play a major role for the climate by naturally capturing and storing carbon present in the atmosphere.[ix]
Further steps Evian should take are to incentivize recycling of PET bottles and to raise customer awareness of a bottle’s potential second life through the act of sorting. Evian should offer money back for it’s bottles and sponsor recycling bottle banks at its major outlets. It could also strive to increase the recycling rate by promoting waste sorting at home. Too many households are not penalized for mixing their trash although this is changing.[xii]
Next time you reach for that bottle, don’t be naïve. Think about saving some money and the planet. Drink from the tap, it’s time to throttle the plastic bottle.
[i] Queiroz, J.T.M., Rosenberg, M.W., Heller, L., Zhouri, A.L.M., and Silva, S.R. (2012). News about Tap and Bottled Water: Can This Influence People’s Choices? Journal of Environmental Protection, 3, 324-333.
[iv] Catherine Ferrier, Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon. A Journal of the Human Environment, 30(2), 118-119.
[vi] Pacific Institute (2006). Bottled Water and Energy. A Fact Sheet.
[vii] Danone Annual Report 2015
[x] Olson, E. (1999). Bottled Water. Pure Drink or Pure Hype? National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), New York.
[xi] Gleick, P.H, and Cooley, H.S. (2009). Energy implications of bottled water. Environmental Research Letters, 4, 1-6.
Student comments on From Evian to Naïve – it’s time to throttle the plastic bottle
This article really highlighted to me how incredibly inefficient and useless plastic bottles really are. I am hopeful that as more people become educated about the quality of tap water, that consumers will also think twice about purchasing plastic bottles. I also think responsibility should fall on corporations, restaurants, bars, etc to provide convenient ways for people to access tap water. In many instances it is likely more profitable for businesses to try to sell bottled water vs leave their tap water readily available, which is a shame.
I think it’s great that Evian is starting to think more closely about its impact on the environment and the extent to which it can mitigate that impact – but I wonder if the steps outlined above are sufficient. For example – only using 25% recycled materials in its bottles is much lower than I’d expect. If this is due to cost issues with conversion from old bottles to new bottles, maybe they should be investing in developing a recycling solution that is time and cost efficient. Moreover, how much impact are these plant based bottles going to make? Certainly they will reduce the amount of oil used in production, but will this do anything to reduce the second externality of bottles polluting our lands and oceans? Will they be more recycle friendly?
I think evian could also be taking a broader look at how they can change customer behavior. People like drinking bottled water because they perceive it to be clean. But, with more and more people using re-usable bottles, people are being forced to use tap water if they want to be environmentally friendly. This could be an opportunity for evian to partner with coffee shops, lunch establishements, dining restaurants, etc. to promote use of their re-usable “water cooler” type of jugs rather than water bottles for those patrons that have their own drinking containers but want purified water. In this way, evian could be a leader in a “clean water, clean earth” movement and continue to generate revenue amidst the changing landscape of consumer behavior.
I agree that Evian’s product is largely unnecessary, and therefore its carbon footprint is especially abhorrent. However, there are people who would argue that mineral water (like Evian’s product) is superior in taste and/or health to tap water or bottled tap water that is treated. For an extreme view, watch this entertaining video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QDMaTGsOBo
In addition to what you outline in your post, Evian could pivot towards creating products that make tap water taste better and compete with companies like Brita. This, however, would run the risk of cannibalizing their own product.
I worry that mistrust in tap water supplies (especially after incidents of contaminated water like in Flint) will keep demand for bottled water high. It’s critical for governments to ensure citizens have access to clean tap water.
Although I am not a big fan of Evain, I truly admire its branding strategy that makes consumers willing to pay for something that is readily available for free. This article is very well written and highlights the fact that packaged goods industry actually creates a significant carbon footprint. I agree that there are more things the company can do to reduce its impact on climate change, yet the most important thing is still to educate consumers to resist the temptation of purchasing bottled water and think about the environment before check out.
CordeliaShackleton, this is truly remarkable analysis! You article makes me wonder what Evian and other bottled water producers could do to remain relevant should the market shift away from disposable plastic bottles due to legislation or consumer preference (or both). Could they establish a system through which consumers purchase Evian in more durable bottles that are returned to Evian for refill and reuse? There is a precedence for this in the sale and distribution of bulk bottled water (i.e. the multi-gallon jugs that sit on office water coolers) and niche dairy products (some organic milk producers still distribute reusable glass bottles). Evian would be disadvantaged by lower margins, of course.
Could Evian establish “refill stations” where customers bring Evian or other personally owned, reusable water bottles to be filled with Evian-branded purified water? I’m thinking of a setup akin to the water bottle refill stations present at music festivals or large concerts, only located near the entrance of a supermarket or convenience store.
I agree 100% that the proliferation of bottled water makes little sense in the developed world where tap water is high quality and nearly free. Perhaps the next great environmental step is to focus on superior water treatment in the developing world, where many consumers feel dependent on water sold in disposable bottles due to sub-standard or even dangerous local tap water.
Thanks for posting!
This topic has always amazed me. I lived for 7 years in Austria, a country which ranks number 5 in the world in top countries with the best tap water (Ranking source http://www.therichest.com) and yet the demand for bottled water was massive. Austrian tap water comes either from the ground or from springs and it tastes just the same (many times better) than water that was sitting for days in a bottle. Because the water is such high quality many Austrian brands ( Romerquelle, Volsaluer) use the quality component as a marketing tool to sell bottled water to the consumers. And it surprises me how high the demand for the bottled water is. People go to stores and carry home heavy bottles instead of drinking from the tab. I often ask myself what is going to come next. Are the big brands going to tell as to buy an oxygen in a bag because it is “cleaner” than the polluted air we breath today? I think it is responsibility of the governments to interfere to some extend. Some countries in Europe have started a trend where governments sponsor TV and radio ads that advise people to drink more tab water. I have seen these ads in my home country, Slovakia. I believe more countries with a good tap water should follow this trend.
The bottled water phenomenon is something I’ve always found absurd. New York City has some of the best tap water in the world, and yet my two other roommates always had fully stocked 30 packs of water bottles at their bedside. Although I am glad to see the company taking its carbon footprint seriously, I also think there is much to done by way of educating consumers as to the magnitude of waste bottled water creates, especially in areas where tap water is more than passable. Additionally, I find it fascinating that transportation costs account for more than half of all costs. I wonder if it would make more sense, both from an economic and sustainability point of view, for Evian to have more, potentially smaller plants, that are located closer to the end users, thereby reducing the carbon footprint and cost associated with transport.
Thanks for the excellent post. It’s startling just how much energy and waste is produced each year for bottled, treated tap water. You noted in your post that Danone will be faced with increasing levels of regulation/scrutiny from legislators over time. I wonder if a plastic bottled water tax would be an efficient way to minimize the consumption of plastic bottle waters–we’ve done it with other behaviors that legislators have viewed as negative (smoking, etc.). Given the impact on the environment, it may be an appropriate response.
Great article! I too am amazed by the bottled-water buying behavior that seems to be just as prevalent where the tap water is of the highest standards as it is in regions where consuming tap water could be harmful. I think “trendy” companies like Swell have helped inspire more responsible behavior, but we certainly have a long way to go. I do like the idea of re-fill stations although I’m not sure Evian stands to gain much from such an endeavor and may argue that water fountains (although people often associate these with germs) already exist and largely serve the same purpose. Advertising that bottles are safe to re-fill is a good start, but I think restaurants and hotels can also co their part by only offering “filtered” water from the tap, at least in areas where drinking from the tap is is confirmed to be safe.