Research conducted on behalf of multi-national companies often carries with it the scent of mistrust. Modern consumers are savvy enough to realise that the parameters of most company-instigated research will have been skewed firmly in the favour of the company paying for the study to be carried out. But is this research always greenwash or can it provide a valuable insight into issues which would otherwise remain uninvestigated?
When I heard on the tweet vine that a recent Nestle funded study shows irrefutably that bottled water is the “greenest” packaged beverage I was sceptical. But scepticism is different from cynicism and I was keen to learn more and discover the truth. Having looked in some detail at the study it appears to have some merit. It’s a peer-reviewed life-cycle analysis (LCA) of various drink options and includes comparisons with other water choices (tap, filtered etc.) as well as other beverage choices (vitamin water, coffee, wine). Ignoring the fact that wine isn’t what most people would consider a viable alternative to water (unless it’s a Friday night of course) the parameters of the research look, to my hugely untrained eye, to be fair. But what about the results?
As you can see from the chart above, bottled water forms a significant proportion of the average US consumer’s beverage consumption. In fact US consumers apparently drink more bottled water than tap water and more “soda” (e.g. cola, lemonade etc.) than anything else. Wow. More soda than water? That’s a lot of fizzy drinks.
Anyway, leaving this health issue aside, the key findings of the report show that the environment would benefit if people switched from soda to bottled water. In fact, if you switch today from your preferred beverage (coffee, wine or whatever) to bottled water you will, on average, reduce your daily “impact” by 9%. Why? Because the non-water elements of soda involve lots of things which contribute to climate change (like growing the sugar, making the chemicals etc.) If you then switched from bottled water to tap water you would see a further decrease in your impact of around 4%.
The conclusion of the report: removing bottled water (i.e. banning it) would be unlikely to result in an environmental improvement. This makes sense because most people would switch to a less environmentally friendly option rather than drink tap water. But it doesn’t remove the fact that we would all be better off drinking more tap water (where clean tap water is available) instead of packaged alternatives. It also doesn’t remove the fact that the waste generated from the packaging of beverages across the world makes up a significant part of our waste streams and that more needs to be done to reduce packaging and complete the circle when it comes to recycling packaging waste.
In conclusion, it may be true that bottled water has less impact across its life-cycle than alternative packaged beverages but it is also about the only drink which most people in developed countries have available, cheaply and with less impact, by simply turning a tap.
Key findings from the study
— Water is the least environmentally damaging beverage option
— Tap water has the lightest footprint, followed by tap water consumed in reusable bottles (if used more than 10 times), and then by bottled water
— Water of all types accounts for 41% of a consumer’s total beverage
consumption, but represents just 12% of a consumer’s climate change impact
— Milk, coffee, beer, wine and juice together comprise 28% of a
consumer’s total beverage consumption, but represent 58% of climate change impact
— Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible packaged drink
— Sports drinks, enhanced waters and soda produce nearly 50% more
carbon dioxide emissions per serving than bottled water
— Juice, beer and milk produce nearly three times as many carbon
dioxide emissions per serving as bottled water