The plastic bottle industry is booming. Here’s why this is a big problem

(CNN) The bottled water industry is a juggernaut. More than 1 million bottles of water are sold worldwide every minute and the sector shows no signs of slowing down, according to a new report. Global sales of bottled water are expected to nearly double by 2030.

However, the industry’s huge global success comes with huge environmental, climate and social costs, according to the United Nations University Institute on Water, Environment and Health report released Thursday, which analyzes the industry’s global impact.

Groundwater, which is extracted to fill billions of plastic bottles each year, poses a potential threat to drinking water resources and is fueling the global plastic pollution crisis, while industry growth is helping to divert attention and resources from funding public water infrastructure, which is critical in many countries is urgently needed. according to the report.

One of the fastest growing sectors in the world

Researchers analyzed data from 109 countries and found that from 2010 to 2020, the bottled water industry saw 73% revenue growth, making it one of the fastest growing industries in the world.

In 2021, global sales of bottled water reached 350 billion liters and was estimated at US$270 billion, a figure that is expected to increase to US$500 billion by 2030.

Bottled water is popular around the world, with the US, China and Indonesia being the biggest consumers. The countries of the Global South together represent about 60% of the market.

According to the report, the United States, China and Indonesia are the top consumers of plastic bottled water.

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

In wealthier countries where clean tap water is widely available, bottled water is often seen as something of a “luxury” as it is seen as healthier and tastier than tap water, the report notes.

“This perception is being fueled by the companies that are promoting bottled water as a pure product,” Zeineb Bouhlel, lead author of the report and a researcher at the UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, told CNN.

However, in many middle- and low-income countries, this is often coupled with a lack of reliable access to safe tap water.

Vladimir Smakhtin, co-author of the report and former director of the UN water think tank, told CNN that the industry’s expansion and its potential to divert focus from expanding public water infrastructure could further exacerbate global inequalities in access to water , especially as the climate crisis worsens.

A spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association told CNN that the industry “supports strong public water systems that are important to providing citizens with clean and safe drinking water.”

Globally, “bottled water is a key to safe drinking water,” the spokesman said, adding, “For many emerging economies, bottled water serves as a partial solution when safe drinking water is not available

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

water withdrawal

A pipeline transports water from wells in the San Bernardino National Forest, California.

The main source of bottled water is groundwater, which is rapidly depleted in some parts of the world due to factors such as over-abstraction and climate-related droughts.

The largest source of groundwater depletion is agriculture, which uses water for irrigation. But the volumes used by the bottled water industry can add stress to an already depleted water source. According to the report, more than 2 billion people worldwide depend on groundwater for their drinking needs.

“While such withdrawals are small in absolute terms, local impacts on water resources can be significant,” the report states.

Some companies operate in areas where drinking water is already scarce. There are also conflicts with communities concerned about the possible adverse effects of harvesting bottled water.

For example, Nestlé Waters North America, now known as BlueTriton Brands, has faced criticism in California for its extraction from the state as it suffers from a prolonged drought.

In the US, the report says that Nestlé Waters (as it was) pumped 3 million liters a day from Florida Springs in 2020, while in France water company Danone pumped up to 10 million liters a day from Evian-les-Bains French Alps.

A Nestlé spokesman said: “Responsible water use and water conservation are at the heart of our efforts to build a more efficient business and act responsibly.”

Danone had not commented on this story at the time of its publication.

Overall, according to the report, “little data is available on the amounts of water withdrawn”. A lack of groundwater regulation and management in some countries can lead to significant abstraction without considering social and environmental impacts.

The spokesman 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 US, the spokesman said that “bottled water production uses an extremely small amount of water — only 0.01%” of the country’s total water consumption.

A wave of plastic pollution

According to the report, the bottled water industry produced around 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021. This resulted in around 25 million tons of plastic waste – the majority of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills.

According to the report, the mountain of rubbish is so gigantic that it would be enough to fill a line of 40-ton trucks stretching from New York to Bangkok every year.

Fossil fuels are the raw material for the vast majority of plastics, which leave a heavy carbon footprint from manufacture to disposal. Judith Enck, a former US Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and now president of the group Beyond Plastics, has called plastics a “climate killer.”

If the plastics industry were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, according to a separate 2021 report.

Employees work on plastic bottle water production line at a factory in Yichun, Jiangxi province of China in 2022.

According to the report, around 85% of plastic water bottles, which can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, end up as waste. They also end up in the ocean, contributing to a huge maelstrom 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 by a “plastic smog” made up of about 171 trillion plastic particles that, if collected, would weigh about 2.3 million tons.

In the environment, plastic bottles can break down into tiny particles called microplastics that end up in our food water and pose a potential risk to human health.

Plastic can also release toxic chemicals that affect animals that ingest it and contaminate animal and human food chains.

“It is deeply concerning that we remain locked into a system that is so dependent on delivering water through plastic bottles that contain and leach toxic chemicals,” said Therese Karlsson, scientific and technical adviser to the International Pollutants Elimination Network, which it was not involved in the study, CNN said.

The spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association said: “Environmental responsibility is part of the history of the bottled water industry.” It added that it is working with “government, industry and public stakeholders to encourage and increase the recycling of bottled water packaging”.

While the search is on 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 decompose faster, but Enck said these are unlikely to solve the problem.

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

A water-poor world

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

However, it is clear that the industry has developed into an important branch of the economy over the course of a few decades and that bottled water suppliers have an incentive to increase sales and expand markets.

The report’s authors worry that the impacts of groundwater extraction and plastic pollution from bottled water companies could get worse in a warmer, water-stressed future.

“If you really need to prepare for a warmer future, you need a reliable supply of water in your home for everyone,” Smakhtin told CNN. “If you don’t have that, you’re more susceptible to temperature increases. Bottled water quenches thirst but does not provide a sustainable solution.”

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