Sustainable solutions for ending water bottle waste

water bottle waste at a marathon
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Switchology

Water is a luxury in the United States, considering that one in nine people on Earth don’t have daily access to clean water. In fact, about 98 percent of the population in the U.S. has access to clean water. At the same time, the second most-consumed beverage in the U.S. is bottled water. Yes, even with access to perfectly clean water and water filtration systems, we continue giving bottled water companies our business. Americans buy about 30 billion water bottles every year, and even more damning is the unnecessarily massive waste stream these water bottles contribute to: We throw out 2.5 million plastic bottles per hour. How do we sustainably stem the tide of waste while satiating our desire for clean, filtered water?

To get a better sense of how outrageous the bottled water industry really is, consider that in 2012 the industry sold about 10 billion gallons of water, pulling in approximately $12 billion. That water can be 2000 times more expensive than the water we get from our sinks, even though many brands simply treat and bottle water from municipal systems. Many brands even source some of their water from regions plagued by drought.

All of these concerns can easily be avoided if we reduce our consumption of bottled water and stick to the municipal water we already have access to. Still, many are skeptical of the quality or taste of the water coming out of the tap. The easiest solution: pair your tap water with a filter. A single Brita filter, for example, saves 300 water bottles.

A water filter is a great solution that can significantly offset the amount of bottled water you purchase and bottle waste you generate, but what about the filters themselves? Are we simply replacing one waste stream with one that is even more difficult-to-recycle?

This is a question we have confronted at TerraCycle in many different circumstances, as sustainable alternatives to existing products or materials are not always truly sustainable right away. Take plant-derived plastics (also known as bioplastics), for example. They are made from renewable materials, some varieties biodegrade, and they help shift us away from fossil fuels. The problem: there are practically no recycling systems in place capable of processing bioplastic. It’s a sustainable and eco-friendly plastic alternative in theory, but only sustainable in practice with the proper infrastructure. If bioplastic ends up in a landfill, it’s the same as any other piece of plastic waste.

The same concern is also true for water filters: while they significantly reduce the need for water bottles while maintaining the quality of water people want, the carbon filter and plastic casing can be a challenge to properly sort and recycle at the municipal level. As this is the case, water filters are not accepted by many municipal systems or curbside programs. What viable solutions exist today that can help manage this waste stream?

One approach, developed by us at TerraCycle, has been to partner with water filter producers directly to provide a viable recycling model for post-consumer filter waste. We recently partnered with PUR and Brita, opening brand new recycling programs for everything from filters and faucet mounts to pitchers, bottles and water dispensers. Anyone can join the program at no cost as it is fully sponsored by PUR and Brita, and everything is processed and recycled.

Our solution is not necessarily the best or only method for reducing filter waste, but it does help extend the environmental benefits of water filter products by keeping some of the raw materials they’re comprised of in the production cycle instead of resigning them to a landfill.

Water filters and other alternatives to our most unsustainable products are only as good as the recovery efforts in place to limit final disposal; we don’t want to simply replace one waste stream with yet another that is challenging to recycle.

Sustainable solutions for ending water bottle waste
Even with extensive access to clean tap water, bottled water is one of our most consumed beverages here in the US. How can we reduce bottle waste while keeping the clean, purified water we love?