Is Recycling Bottled Water a Beautiful Thing?

Four separate Youtube screen captures from Arrowhead's video Recycling is a Beautiful Thing (see video below) 
Bottled water companies have had an uphill climb in getting a piece of the beverage industry (imagine trying to sell a product that is already available for free in your home). A main point in The Story of Bottled Water is that the industry has had to "manufacture demand". After marketing bottled water as a cleaner and more convenient product than tap water the industry had to reassure consumers that bottled water was safe for the environment; greenwashing. Arrowhead, which is a Nestle brand name used to sell bottled water to the western United States, launched the "Recycling is a Beautiful Thing" campaign in 2012 and they released a stop-motion video February 12th to "...demonstrate that recycled materials have significant second life utility" (article) and to promote their 50% recycled PET bottle.

Large companies, and even entire industries, should do everything they can to be conscience of wasteful practices, create sustainable products, and help protect the environment. In the case of the bottled water industry (Arrowhead for example); they are deceiving the public into thinking their products are truly "ReBorn" while in fact the products are harmful to the environment and the business practices are actually contradicting the message that "Recycling is a Beautiful Thing". Here's the question: is recycling a beautiful thing for bottled water? The answer is yes and no. Yes, the theory in recycling is to create completely sustainable cycles. The answer is certainly yes for PR departments; consumers want to feel like they are helping the environment. The answer is also is no, plastic recycling is definitely not sustainable, and processes regarding oil extraction and pollution from litter or incineration are not helpful to the environment.

First let us look at the process of recycling plastic bottles. The video is correct in that a large majority of bottles are not even recycled, plastic pollution is a problem that could could be potentially catastrophic. Some bottles are instead thrown away where they end up in a landfill, or better yet, incinerated. A lot of the bottles that are recycled go into products like clothing or carpeting, these cannot be recycled, thus the trip to the landfill is only delayed. The problem lies in the fact that PET cannot truly be recycled, as is the case for most plastics. Recycled PET (rPET) is ground into pellets or flakes because every time the plastic is reheated there is a loss in quality (aluminum or glass could be "infinitely recycled"). Most bottled water companies choose to use virgin plastics for their bottles because it is often cheaper than rPET. Bottles are usually made with no more than 30% rPET plastic (the Arrowhead bottle is actually 50%), because the quality of the plastic would not be sufficient to use 100% rPET and because the cost for new plastic is lower than that of recycled plastic.

The bottled water industry, however, does not want you to believe this. They want you to think that the only reason that they don't have bottles that are made from 100% recycled plastic is because you aren't recycling enough. "We need consumers to cooperate with us and recycle more and more in order for us to be able to use the recycled material in our bottles" said Gigi Leporati, brand manager for Arrowhead (article). The Arrowhead website even says "Currently there isn't enough recycled plastic for us to make 100% rPET bottles". Basically stating, if you just recycled more there wouldn't be environmental problems with PET bottles (ignoring everything else like harmful processes that go into making the bottles and that the bottles could never be recycled over and over).

Bottled water companies may say that recycling is the answer, it could be considered logical that this is where their commitment lies, right? Not exactly, bottle water companies publicly advocate for consumer recycling, when in fact they do little more to encourage recycling. Examples include bottle bills. They have been around for a long time, and they are proven to be effective; recycling rates skyrocket in states with bottle bills (see for information on bottle bills). It would make sense that the industry would be advocating for these bills because of their record on improving recycling rates, when in fact the industry is attempting to block these bills from ever happening. Last year the state of Massachusetts proposed an update to their bottle bill that would further incentivize the public into recycling. The bill was killed by a legislative committee despite overwhelming public support. James McCaffrey of the Sierra club said, "sadly it's becoming clearer that big business is dictating how Beacon Hill votes... The bottlers and other big beverage interests trumped the people, the environment, and the facts on this one".

The industry doesn't want more recycling because it would cost them money, it is cheaper to make new plastic and part of the bottle bill incentive could come from their pocket. They say that curbside recycling is the only way to make a difference in recycling (only about 50% of the U.S. has curbside recycling). "Bottle bills, however, aren't the answer. The problem with bottle bills is they create an enormous government bureaucracy..." and "the handling fees paid by industry and the unredeemed deposits paid by consumers do not go toward enhancing a state's environmental infrastructure" wrote the president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America. Take Michigan's bottle bill as an example of how bottle bills should work. Consumers in Michigan get a 10¢ deposit, which in turn produces the highest rate of recycling in the country; an overall redemption rate of 97% since 1990. Recycling rate and redemption rate are not completely identical, but if you compare 97% to the current recycling rate of about 30% in the United States, it's not bad. Not only does the recycling rate drastically increase, 75% of unredeemed deposits go towards state environmental programs and 25% go back to the retailers. The claims by the bottled water industry are false, if bottle bills could ever get past large legislative committees, who are paid by the beverage industry, there would be a much higher rate of recycling.

Companies will always be fueled by profits and not by an interest in the well-being of the community. Instead they will act like they care about things like "being green", when all they really care about is green money. Please share your thoughts on "greenwashing" in the bottled water industry, or comments on the video, bottles bills, anything covered in the article, criticism, etc. I will include links to some interesting sites used to create this article. The aforementioned Massachusetts bottle bill has been updated for 2013, you can follow its progress here

UPDATE: 1:44 pm, Wednesday, February 20th.
The Northern Territory of Australia was in the process of enacting a container deposit law (bottle bill) for a 10 cent deposit, now Coca-Cola has essentially sued them saying the law is "legally invalid". The war rages on, here's the article from 7 News Sydney.

UPDATE 2: 8:03 pm, Thursday, February 21st.
In examining more information on bottle bills I have stumbled upon more information. I found a pdf from related to the Massachusetts bottle bill. The Sierra Club outlines reasons why bottle bills should be enacted in a response to a letter of opposition to Massachusetts bottle bill. Here is the pdf file, and here is an excerpt: 
When you buy a bottle of soda, you pay the price plus a nickel. When you return it, you get 100% of your deposit back. That small incentive helps keeps our streets and parks clean, and triples the recycling rate that’s achieved by curbside. 2 Who pays for the bottle redemption system? The bottlers. At less than a penny per bottle, 3 bottlers have the responsibility of cleaning up the mess and assuming that huge burden their empties have on our cities and towns.
and here's more: 
The facts are that bottles deposit programs are far more efficient than any curbside program anywhere in the world. There is simply no better method. The only proposals that are being touted as such are offered by the Big Bottlers who wish to evade any responsibility for the litter and trash that their products have created, to place the costs of cleanup on the taxpayers, and to engage in greenwashing.
just a bit more:
There is no one solution to decrease waste, and there have been no proposals to do so – because there cannot be. The only way successful approach has been to segment it, reduce when possible, reuse where appropriate, and recycle as much as we can. Any proposal that ignores the complexity of the problem is oversimplifying it to increase corporate profits and engage in greenwashing. 


  1. Great article on the PR campaign on water bottling recycling. Recycling is on the low end of the food chain of reduce, reuse, recycle, and even worse for packaging of a useless commodity.

    1. Thanks for commenting John, I think the industry should use the term downcycle instead of recycle for plastics like these. And why isn't bio-degradable packaging more widespread? The technology seems to be ready.

  2. I was always used to feel concerned about the growing pollution rate in my locality. Now, when I am able to find a recycle center near me, it has made it easy for me to convince all my friends and neighbours to sending their reusable waste to the centre instead of throwing in a trash bean.