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Research puts water container pollution in perspective

Sanbwa polluter myth Research from the US has highlighted that bottled water containers make up just 3.3 per cent of all beverage containers in landfills. This lays to waste the myth that the industry is responsible for the lion’s share of plastic pollution in that country.

The situation is likely to be mirrored in South Africa, where bottled water has become the “poster boy” for plastic waste and environmental destruction.

According to South African National Bottled Water Association (Sanbwa) executive director, Charlotte Metcalf, the idea that bottled water packaging is clogging up landfills continues to be erroneously perpetuated.

By comparing its packaging side-by-side against the other most common types of beverage container packaging the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) put the myth to the test and found it didn’t, well, hold water, she said.

Instead, the IBWA discovered that bottled water containers, measured in tons of landfill space, made up just 3.3 per cent of all beverage containers that end up in landfills. The waste percentage numbers were much higher for the glass (66.7 per cent), aluminum (7.9 per cent) and soft drink bottles (13.3 per cent) that ended up in landfills.

The data used for the IBWA’s investigations came from the Container Recycling Institute’s (CRI) analysis of beverage container sales and recycling rates. The most recent report concluded that 9.315 million tonnes of beverage container packaging ended up in landfills in the US in 2010.

Within that number, PET containers for bottled water, with an average weight of 9.89g made up only 0.308 million tonnes. PET for carbonated drinks packaging weighed considerably more (23.9g) due to the need to use heavier plastic for carbonation and thus totalled 1.239 million tonnes.

‘While no such research has been conducted locally, I strongly believe that the situation in South Africa mirrors that unearthed by the IBWA,’ said Metcalf.

‘This is because we know that the local bottled water industry’s share of the total non-alcoholic packaged beverage industry is less than three per cent. It is logical that, unless every single empty bottle of bottled water is sent to landfill – and they aren’t – bottled water bottles can only account for a very small percentage of beverage packaging waste in South Africa.

‘Strengthening my case is the fact that South Africa already achieved a post-consumer PET bottle recycling rate of 49 per cent in 2014, equivalent to 1.5 billion or 4 million bottles a day,’ she said.

Metcalf added that bottled water’s critics also commonly misrepresent environmental facts when they want to disparage bottled water products. In one often-seen example, they cite energy use and greenhouse gas emissions numbers, comparing bottled water packaging to oil use and car emissions.

Again, the IBWA compared bottled water’s PET containers against the most common drink packages.

Using the CRI report, it discovered that PET plastic for bottled water containers had the smallest footprint when the energy used to make the container, greenhouse gas emissions, and recyclability rate was taken into account. While that used to make foil pouches and aseptic boxes was slightly less, both of those packaging types are not easy to recycle and are instead simply sent to landfill.



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