Ask Pablo: Is Boxed Water Really Better?

Drink cartons sitting on an bench with grass in the background

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Dear Pablo: I recently saw drinking water sold in a milk carton. It doesn't seem any better to me than bottled water. Is boxed water really better as the company claims?

In past articles, I have shown that boxed beverages have their advantages and are indeed better from an environmental perspective in the case of wine. But boxed wine is better environmentally because it is being compared to the current packaging of choice, heavy glass bottle. With drinking water, most companies supply their product in plastic bottles which is relatively light and recyclable (although sometimes it is still transported from halfway around the world).

One company is betting on milk carton-like packaging to provide an ecologically-friendly alternative to traditional bottled water. The appeal of boxed water is to provide an alternative to traditional bottled water, which has become stigmatized as the poster-child of un-ecological consumption. They call their product "Boxed Water Is Better," but is it really?

How Does Boxed Water Stack Up?

To get to the heart of the matter I spoke with an expert on sustainability in the bottled water industry, Alex McIntosh, founder and CEO of Ecomundi Ventures. McIntosh told me that "business model and packaging innovation is key to sustainability improvement in the beverage industry. But I have a concern where the marketing story gets ahead of the facts." In this case, "boxed water is better" might have a solid story--paper can be can be environmentally superior to plastic in some ways. McIntosh continues "but it depends on a number of elements, which "boxed water is better" unfortunately, doesn't provide us." McIntosh goes on to list a series of questions that he would ask of the "Boxed Water Is Better" company: "Have they conducted a life cycle analysis (LCA) of their specific material and manufacturing process? Have they done a comparative study versus other packaging and water source options? Does their packaging contain non-paper elements (thus making recycling more difficult)? How does their water sourcing value chain compare with other models in terms of water, energy and wastewater?" Without access to this data, it is difficult to verify claims of environmental superiority.

We can, however, use proxy date to estimate the relative impact of their product offering when compared to the standard bottled water. Proxy data is based on industry- or economy-wide averages--it is approximately right, but does not provide results that are specific to any one manufacturing process or value chain in particular. By far the most studied milk carton is known as the TetraPak. From an independently verified life cycle analysis available from TetraPak we can find that their cartons result in only 8 grams of greenhouse gas emissions (per liter container). From research that I have done in the bottled water industry I know that the average half liter PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottle is responsible for around 50 grams of greenhouse gas emissions. What this means is that, even if the PET bottle is recycled and the carton goes to the landfill, the impact of the carton will be less in most cases. An additional point in favor of the carton is that the "Boxed Water Is Better" product comes in a half-gallon gable-top carton, equivalent to four 1/2-liter PET bottles. This makes the relative impact of the carton even less.

What Else Sets Boxed Water Is Better Apart?

In addition to the apparent ecological improvement over traditional bottled water, "Boxed Water Is Better" has several other things going for it. Not only does the wood used to manufacture their cartons come from certified, well managed forests but they will also give 10% of their profits (as soon as they make a profit) to reforestation foundations. Their cartons can also be shipped flat, unlike glass or plastic bottles. This means that the flat, unfilled boxes that they "can fit on 2 pallets, or roughly 5% of a truckload, would require about 5 truckloads for empty plastic or glass bottles," according to their website. The company is also conscious of global issues surrounding access to clean drinking water so they will be donating a further 10% of their profits to world water relief foundations.

While any packaged water seems like a novelty or a symptom of our "throw away" society it may have its place. While it is still best to carry a reusable water bottle we may still find ourselves in need of hydration when we are unprepared. Packaged water can provide a convenient, portable, and healthy alternative to soft drinks and other high-calorie beverages. While I wouldn't run out to the store to buy boxed water to take to the gym, I would certainly consider buying some for my disaster preparedness kit.