Let’s be clear: The only reason you should drink bottled water is if you are somewhere without access to clean drinking water. The source of most plastic is fossil fuels, a limited and non-renewable resource. Plastic persists in the environment for hundreds of years, causing harm to animals. Transporting bottled water creates a lot of unnecessary carbon dioxide into the air. And, anyway, the cost of bottled water can be as much as 2,000 times tap water.
Even so, bottled water consumption is going up. Insofar as it means people are drinking fewer sweet fizzy drinks, that is good for public health. But it also means that bottled water is here to stay, and so is its environmental impact.
The good news is that manufacturers of bottled drinks are realizing that they can’t keep consuming fossil fuels at the same rate. Over the last few years, companies including Pepsi and Coca-Cola have been sourcing some of the raw materials for their plastic bottles from plant sources. Now, in an industry move that could accelerate this transition, Danone and Nestlé Waters, two of the world’s biggest bottled-water manufacturers, including brands such as Evian and Perrier, have created an alliance called NaturALL to make plastic bottles from 100% sustainable sources.
The alliance is working with a California-based startup, Origin Materials, that has the technology to use wood or wood-based products, among other materials. Unlike other sources for plant-based plastic such as sugarcane or corn grown for ethanol, wood does not compete with food production.
Klaus Hartwig, head of research and development at Nestlé Waters, framed the move as a response to consumer demand. “Sustainability for the planet is sustainability for the company,” he said.
The plastic most often used to make bottles is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. It’s made from two components: ethylene glycol, which can already be sourced from plant-based sources such as sugarcane; and terephthalic acid, which often comes from fossil fuels. The usual process to make terephthalic acid from fossil fuels requires six or seven chemical steps. Origin Materials has reduced that process to four steps.
“Instead of expensive crude oil, we use inexpensive material such as pinewood,” said John Bissell, CEO of Origin Materials (previously called Micromidas), which as raised over $70 million since it was founded in 2008.
With NaturALL’s backing, Bissell plans to build a $25-million plant that is slated to produce 5,000 tons of plastic by 2018, consisting of at least 60% bio-based starting materials. The eventual aim is to reach 95% bio-based PET at commercial scale of about 1 million tons.
Some companies are considering ditching PET altogether. Beer manufacturer Carlsberg claims to be working on a cardboard-based bottle, but it’s not a realistic option just yet. PET is a superior material: clear, cheap, moldable, and effective. (You don’t want the carbonation or moisture leaking out.) It is also one of the most recycled plastics.
Multinationals are increasingly feeling the pressure to reduce their carbon emissions. It may be because they are already seeing consumer demand for greener products affecting business negatively, or may be because they are expecting some form of carbon tax to be levied in the near future.
One way out to reach better environmental standards is to work together. Alliances across an industry, like NaturALL, create a space where rival companies invest small sums and all reap benefits, without losing an edge.
“We have defined highly ambitious economic goals,” said Frederic Jouin, head of research and development for plastic materials at Danone. “If it is not commercially viable, the material won’t go anywhere.”