The Plastic Water Bottle Conundrum

28 December 2018

Plastic water bottles are a complete waste of resources and are really aweful for the environment, but as with most things, convenience overrules everything for consumers. Based on this Slashdot article bottled water companies are trying to solve this problem, but are mostly failing. So the question is, how can we reduce the environmental impact of single use portable water bottles?

Right now, there are boxed water alternatives, which are, according to this article, about 75% paper, the rest being plastic and aluminum. Additionally, they’re easier to ship because you can smush them flat in a semi-truck trailer, which takes up less space and reduces fuel usage. That’s good! However, the complex nature of the materials makes it harder to recycle for cash-strapped city and state run recycle programs. Even if it was easy to recycle, consumers will often not recycle because it’s less convenient. One potential way to solve the problem is to improve on existing boxed water designs and make them 100% biodegradable and have a low environmental impact when manufacturing them. I’ll leave that one up to the material scientists to pursue.

Another way, suggested by one of the Slashdot commenters from the first article I linked, was to add a deposit, and give it back upon return. The German government has implemented this for both single and multi-use bottles (called the Pfand system), though they don’t have a deposit for the drinks. While not perfect in its implementation, a tweaked version of it could work in the US. This may happen on the state and local levels, but probably not on the national level unless it’s shown that it would be profitable for large national beverage brands and the retailers who sell those brands. Even if no new policy is passed, I think there’s room here for a startup that functions as the logistical coordinator between recycling plants, beverage companies, and retailers. It wouldn’t even take very much in the way in innovation. Retailers already have places to store things, and the beverage companies could just load the empty bottles onto the trucks that deliver the full bottles. Most of the work would be in convincing companies to work with you, creating lines of communication, and load balancing the inventory.