Will Nestlé's Wood-Based Water Bottles Really Help the Environment?

The goal is to achieve an entirely petroleum-free bottle in just six years.
March 13, 2017, 9:17pm

Plastics may have revolutionized food packaging, but they've become a huge problem—both in the production process, which requires fossil fuels, and in their disposal, which is, in most cases, via landfills. It's no secret that we produce far too much plastic, and the amount produced is set to nearly quadruple by mid-century to 1.12 billion tons annually.

In an effort to make a dent in the growing plastic problem, though, Nestlé and Danone, the world's top two producers of bottled water, are working to develop plastic water bottles from discarded wood rather than petroleum.

The unlikely alliance between the two bottled water giants involves a third party, the Sacramento startup Origin Materials, and the trio will recycle sawdust and cardboard into the "plastic" bottles. With existing technology, bottles on the market can be made with 30 percent bio-based material. But that bio-based material can come in the form of, say, ethanol, which is made from corn grown specifically for the purpose. Recycled wood, on the other hand, doesn't divert resources from the food chain.

By 2020, the NaturALL Bottle Alliance, as it is known, aims to produce bottles made from 75 percent bio-based material, and by the end of 2022, 95 percent, with the goal of an entirely petroleum-free bottle. The technology will be shared with the rest of the food and beverage industry.

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"This next-generation PET will be as light in weight, transparent, recyclable and protective of the product as today's PET [polyethylene terephthalate], while being better for the planet," a Nestlé Waters of North America spokesperson told MUNCHIES.

That's great news. But we're still talking about more plastic that needs to be collected and recycled and, more broadly, bottled water as a concept. From a sustainability standpoint, taking water from natural springs and placing them in individual, single-use bottles is problematic, and environmentalist critics have taken on the industry over the years.

Last year, Nestlé came under fire for drawing water from the San Bernardino National Forest in the midst of the California drought. Per the contract with the Forest Service, Nestlé paid just $524 for the privilege of drawing 36 million gallons in 2015 for its Arrowhead brand. Activists protested Nestlé's operation and sued, questioning the legality of the contract, but a judge rejected the suit, allowing Nestlé to continue drawing water.

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Nestlé released a statement in response to the verdict last year, saying, "We take our responsibility as a water steward in California seriously and that is why we do not pump water from the Arrowhead Springs, but rather only source water that flows to the surface.

"Across California and the West, we carefully monitor all of our spring sources and balance their function based on local conditions to make sure we do not overly rely on any single spring source. This supports long-term sustainability and healthy habitats."

Other communities have resisted Nestlé's water sourcing operations in the past for various reasons, some with legal success.

Sales of bottled water have been on a precipitous rise for years, with a simultaneous decline in soda consumption. It's got some thinking about the increasing commodification of water, and we're not just talking about paying $5 for a bottle at a music festival. As private corporations buy up the rights to water sources, they go from being a public to a private good.

Something to think about as you enjoy a glass of tap, which, to be fair, you also pay for. But it costs somewhere between 300 to 2000 times less than the bottled stuff and, as a bonus, won't put a single bottle in a landfill.