Reusable Water Bottles Are Not as Green as You Think

Aluminum water bottle sitting on the end of a log in a forest

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Made from virgin materials that require resource-intensive manufacturing processes, reusable water bottles aren't the perfect solution that you may think.

Reusable water bottles have become associated with caring for the environment. People who carry them do so not just for the convenience of always having water at hand, but also as a protest against the excessive wastefulness of disposable plastic water bottles. In some ways they’ve become as ubiquitous (and irritating) as reusable grocery bags, handed out as freebies to the point that most of us have excessive numbers of reusable bottles kicking around the house.

But have you ever stopped to think about what reusable water bottles mean for the planet? They are not necessarily a perfect solution.

The Problems With Reusable Water Bottles

In a book called “Green Washing: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet,” author Kendra Pierre-Louis devotes an entire chapter to the question, “How clean is your canteen?” She points out that many water bottle manufacturers, such as Klean Kanteen and Sigg, use only virgin materials in production, despite the vast amount of recyclable stainless steel and aluminum available.

“Despite the fact that Sigg boasts of the recyclability of their aluminum water bottles – and to be clear, aluminum is completely recyclable – their bottles are made from 100 percent virgin aluminum. Consequently, each 150 gram, 1 liter Sigg bottle releases roughly .77 pounds of carbon before it’s even left the aluminum smelter.
“In fact, a 1999 MIT study showed that producing one ton of virgin aluminum generates approximately 10 times more carbon dioxide than the production of a ton of steel. Recycled aluminum by contrast would only utilize 5 percent of the energy that virgin aluminum does.”

Stainless steel production is also extremely resource-intensive, relying on open-pit nickel mining and notoriously toxic iron smelting. The process makes Klean Kanteen’s boasts about wind-powered webhost and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified in-store displays sound hollow.

Aluminum smelting is creating major issues for indigenous people such as the Kayapó in the Amazon, where the Brazilian government is currently building the Belo Monte dam. It would be the third largest dam in the world, motivated in large part by the desire to power aluminum smelting mines in northeastern Brazil.

Of course the water bottle companies aren’t to blame for such developments, but they – and we eager green-minded consumers who buy their products – are adding one more item to the demand for raw materials.

The Solution

What’s the solution? Obviously we need access to water, and disposable plastic bottles are out of the question. Until companies start converting single-use aluminum cans into water bottles and we can find bottles that are made from 100% recycled materials, Pierre-Louis suggests a radical return to the old days:

“Given that we [Americans] spend 87 percent of our time indoors, within spitting distance of clean drinking water and this old-fashioned thing called cups, why do most of us need water bottles? Instead of boldly declaring our greenness by purchasing a water bottle, isn’t it greener to do what we did before we all strolled through town with bottled water in tow: drink from public drinking fountains, or out of glasses at home and at work, or simply be thirsty for a while until we can get to a water source?”