The plastic water bottle industry is booming. Here’s why it’s a huge problem


The bottled water industry is a juggernaut. More than one million bottles of water are sold every minute worldwide and the industry shows no signs of slowing down, according to a new report. Global bottled water sales are expected to nearly double by 2030.

But the industry’s huge global success comes at a huge environmental, climate and social cost, according to the report released Thursday by the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, which analyzes the global impacts of the industry.

Groundwater extracted to help fill billions of plastic bottles a year poses a potential threat to drinking water resources and fuels the global plastic pollution crisis, while industry growth helps divert attention and resources for financing desperately needed public water infrastructure in many countries, according to the report.

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. fastest in the world.

In 2021, global bottled water sales reached 350 billion liters and were valued at around $270 billion, a figure that is expected to rise to $500 billion by 2030.

Bottled water is popular around the world, with the United States, China and Indonesia being the biggest consumers. The countries of the Global South together account for approximately 60% of the market.

According to the report, there are very different motivations for drinking bottled water, depending on the region.

In wealthier countries, where clean tap water tends to be widely available, bottled water is often considered a “luxury” purchase, considered healthier and tastier than tap water, notes the report.

“This perception is fueled by companies that promote bottled water as a pure product,” Zeineb Bouhlel, lead author of the report and researcher at the Institute for Water, Environment and Health, told CNN. the United Nations University.

However, in many middle- and low-income countries, it is often linked to a lack of reliable access to tap water.

Vladimir Smakhtin, co-author of the report and former director of the United Nations water think tank, told CNN that the expansion of the industry and its potential to distract from the expansion of public infrastructure water could further aggravate global inequalities in access to water. , 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 in providing citizens with clean and safe drinking water.”

Globally, “bottled water is the key to drinking water,” the spokesperson said, adding, “For many economically developing countries, bottled water serves as a partial solution when drinking water is not available.

The association also added that the industry spends “very little on marketing, especially compared to other beverages”.

A pipeline carries water drawn from wells in California's San Bernardino National Forest.

The primary 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 the water for irrigation. But the volumes taken by the bottled water industry can add further pressure to an already depleted water source. According to the report, more than 2 billion people worldwide depend on groundwater for their drinking water needs.

“Although these withdrawals are small in absolute terms, the local impacts on water resources can be significant,” the report says.

Some companies operate in areas where there are already drinking water shortages. There are also conflicts with communities who are concerned about the potential negative impacts of extracting bottled water companies.

Nestlé Waters North America, for example, now known as BlueTriton Brands, has come under fire in California for pulling out of the state as it suffers from a prolonged drought.

In the United States, the report indicates that in 2020, Nestlé Waters (as is) extracted 3 million liters per day from Florida Springs, while in France, the water company Danone extracted up to 10 million liters per day from Evian-les-Bains to the French Alps.

A Nestlé spokesperson said: “Responsible water use and water conservation are at the heart of our efforts to build a more efficient business and be responsible stewards.

A Danone spokesperson said “we have been pioneers in the preservation and restoration of water resources”.

“The figures given in the report are incorrect and are far from reflecting the reality in Evian-les-Bains. The bottled water industry is one of the smallest users of water. For example, in France, natural mineral water represents 0.3% of renewable groundwater,” the spokesperson added.

Overall, according to the report, there is “little data available on the volumes of water extracted”. A lack of groundwater regulation and management in some countries can lead to the extraction of significant quantities without considering social and environmental impacts, he 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 United States, the spokesperson said that “bottled water production uses an extremely small amount of water – only 0.01%” of the country’s total water consumption.

The bottled water industry generated around 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, according to the report. This resulted in around 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills.

The pile of waste 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 material for the vast majority of plastics, which have a high carbon footprint from manufacturing to disposal. Judith Enck, former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now president of the Beyond Plastics group, called plastic 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.

Employees work on the plastic bottled water production line at a factory in Yichun, China's Jiangxi province, in 2022.

According to the report, around 85% of plastic water bottles, which can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, end up as waste. They also end up in the ocean, adding to a vast whirlwind 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 with “plastic smog” made up of around 171 trillion plastic particles which, if put together, would weigh around 2.3 million tonnes.

In the environment, plastic bottles can break down into tiny particles, called microplastics, which end up in our drinking water, posing a potential risk to human health.

Plastic can also release toxic chemicals, affecting animals that ingest it, contaminating animal and human food chains.

“It is deeply concerning that we continue to be locked into a system that is so dependent on the distribution of water in plastic bottles, which contain and release toxic chemicals,” said Therese Karlsson, science and technical adviser for the International Pollutant Removal Network, which was not involved in the study, told CNN.

The spokesperson for the International Bottled Water Association said “environmental stewardship is part of the bottled water industry’s history.” He added that he is working with “government, industry and public interest groups to promote and increase the recycling of bottled water packaging.”

Although there is an ongoing search for greener alternatives to plastic bottles, the report says there is still no “breakthrough solution”.

Some companies are looking at biodegradable alternatives, which are made from materials other than fossil fuels and break down faster, but Enck said they are unlikely to solve the problem.

“The truth is that most bio-based plastics are not biodegradable,” she said, adding that “the only real solution to the plastic pollution crisis is to completely reduce the production and use of plastics to Disposable”.

Public information about parts of the bottled water industry is limited, fragmented and sometimes inconsistent, according to the report’s authors, who said the findings should be considered preliminary.

But, they said, what is clear is that the industry has become a major economic sector over the past few decades and bottled water suppliers have an incentive to increase sales and expand their markets. .

The report’s authors fear that the impacts of groundwater extraction and plastic pollution from bottled water companies will worsen in a warmer, more water-scarce future.

“If you really need to prepare for a warmer future, you need a reliable water supply in your home for everyone,” Smakhtin told CNN. “If you don’t have that, you’re more vulnerable to rising temperatures. Bottled water will quench thirst, but it won’t provide a lasting solution.


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