Here today, here tomorrow – but what about yesterday? The environmental cost of plastic water bottle production

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Written by: Damon de Clercq

It is well known that plastic bottles have environmental costs which last long after the last drop – from the micro-plastics which creep into our food chain to the toxic chemicals which leach into soil and waterways. However, there does not seem to be much conversation around the production process of plastic bottles and the environmental burden it imposes. The Guardian reported in 2017 that globally, on average, a million plastic bottles were bought every minute [1]. This number is alarming and raises the question – what is the total footprint of the bottled water industry?

Majority of plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) a polymer derived from petroleum hydrocarbons, which are a by-product of either crude oil or natural gases – already we are off to a bad start. Plastic manufacturing takes up 4% of the world’s oil consumption annually, that equates to 1.46 billion barrels of oil or, in other words, enough energy to power 73 million American households [2] [3].  The process of plastic bottle production is quite energy extensive – from manufacturing, purification to transportation.
The average 38g one litre PET bottle takes 4 million joules (MJ) to produce, if you add up the energy required for processing and exporting the number ranges between 5.6 to 10.2MJ per a litre [4]. A barrel of oil contains about 6000MJ of energy hence 933 barrels of oil are used per a minute according to The Guardians 2017 report – or enough energy to power 47 homes for a year [1] [4].

The oil analogy allows for a predication of the amount of  produced in the process. Energy, unless it is supplied from renewable resources produces – a gas which we have been adding to the atmosphere at such an alarming rate we have induced man-made climate change. This phenomena is not only causing rising sea levels but is also putting strain on our water supply – by 2025 1.8 billion people will live in areas of water scarcity [5].
It might be worth noting that the manufacturing of plastic water bottles produces 211 million metric tonnes of  per a year [4] [6].

Carbon dioxide is not the only threat to our water sources. Bottling companies use water either from an underground spring or lake. Removing the water from this source effectively removes it from the hydrological cycle – as bottled water does not evaporate [7]. Furthermore,  companies are allowed to operate on a “business as usual” basis even in times of severe droughts,  an excellent example would be the bottling giant Nestlé still extracting water while majority of Californian residents were under water restrictions [8].

The bottled water industry is worth USD$200 billion, therefore it is not going to disappear overnight [9]. So, what can companies do to reduce their impact on the environment? The obvious solutions would be making use of sustainable energy sources and increasing the amount of plastic recycling – only 9% of plastic bottles are recycled [1]. Reducing the weight of the bottles can also have a positive impact – the less a bottle weighs the less energy is required to make it [4]. At the end of the day the responsibility lies with us, the consumer, we need to vote with our wallets by boycotting unsustainable bottled water companies.

[1] S. Laville and M. Taylor, “A million bottles a minute: world’s plastic binge ‘as dangerous as climate change’,” 28 June 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 07 March 2019].

[2] British Plastics Federation, “Oil Consumption “What happens to plastics when the oil runs out and when will it run out?”,” 19 August 2008. [Online]. Available: [Accessed Sunday March 2019].

[3] International Energy Agency, “Oil Market Report,” Argus Media Limited, London, 2019.

[4] P. H. Gleick and H. S. Cooley, “Energy implications of bottled water,” Environmental Research Letters, no. 4, pp. 1-6, 2009.

[5] Z. Tata, “Why the global water crisis needs a moonshot,” 22 March 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 12 March 2019].

[6] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator – Calculations and References,” 18 December 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 10 March 2019].

[7] D. V. Shiva, Interviewee, From water crisis to water culture. [Interview]. 27 September 2008.

[8] R. Neate, “Nestlé boss says he wants to bottle more water in California despite drought,” 14 May 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed March 2019].

[9] L. Wood, “Global Bottled Water Market 2018–2023: A $334 Billion Opportunity, Driven by Health & Wellness Concerns –,” 13 August 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 12 March 2019].