The Carbon Column – Bottled Water: Can it or Keep it?

In my first of a regular column I look at the true picture around plastic water bottles, are they really that evil?

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Everyone hates plastic.

It has become a hot topic over recent years, especially since we saw the poor turtle with a straw jammed up its nose. Plastic has plagued our biosphere. It is present in the deepest parts of the ocean and on top of the highest mountains. It has destroyed beautiful places and it will remain there for thousands of years, so why wouldn’t you hate plastic?

That turtle ‘moment’ went on to inspire massive cultural change. The public got angry. Politicians got concerned and businesses started to act.

Out went plastic straws – now we have metal or paper straws. Many more businesses are switching from plastic in other ways and consumers are also trying to change their behaviour around how much plastic they purchase.

Government also introduced new policies to reduce plastics, such as the charge on plastic bags. I remember when the 5p charge was introduced and I would refuse to pay for a bag, as I am a tight northerner. I would figure out how I could carry all my shopping whilst trying not to embarrass myself. It never worked.

Since then, I have made sure I always take a reusable bag or two. My other half would disagree and say I never do the shopping anyway!

Policy changes behaviour and we have become more aware of plastic use.

As I write this column sitting on the train, there are four people on the tables around me. I can see three plastic bottles and one can. It’s a can of water, this has become a common sight especially at corporate events, who want to appear greener.

Cans v bottles?

After all, we all know about recycling cans and it seems far better than the nasty plastic bottle. I reckon 90% of people would say aluminium cans are better than plastic but is that actually true?

Bottled water vs canned water could be debated from many angles, but let’s focus on carbon emissions. During a time when I believed all plastic was bad, I spoke to Harrogate Spring Water, a company on my doorstep that creates millions of bottles of water annually for people and businesses all over the world.

They say they are a water company focused on ensuring their business is sustainable.

Their bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is 100% recyclable. 51% of the bottle is made from recycled PET. So, why haven’t bottled water companies like them and others, switched to offering just canned water?

Well, studies show canned water may not be better for the environment.

Comparing aluminium cans and plastic bottles is not easy. But the data shows carbon emissions from aluminium may be over double the emissions from plastics.

Aluminium cans use more energy during production, from extracting the bauxite from the ground, to processing into aluminium oxide to finally breaking down this compound into its components. It is not a simple process.

All this makes the true carbon equation very complicated. I don’t believe the decision is simple and focusing on carbon emissions alone is not enough.

Although many businesses, governments and consumers are trying to move to a lower plastic consuming society, it is undeniable that plastic revolutionised the food industry and how would we have got through the pandemic without it?

Reducing plastic to find more appropriate technologies is a major challenge and one that is not going away.

So, I believe like everything plastic is not a black and white issue. Businesses need to change to help consumers make better decisions. I’m keen to help understand this more.

Please get in touch if you have thoughts around this or any other net zero topic.