It is the container that could launch a revolution. The first biodegradable bottle has gone on sale in Britain, raising hopes we may one day stop adding to the mountain of plastic packaging accumulating in shopping baskets and landfill sites.
The plastic water bottle - from a new company committed to environmental production, Belu - is made of corn and decomposes in home compost in months. Its launch is an attempt to stem the tide of plastic wrappers, tubs, trays and bottles that threatens to engulf landfill sites in the UK.
People in Britain throw away their body weight in rubbish every seven weeks. A growing consumer backlash against the growth in packaging has prompted businesses to explore greener alternatives.
Sainsbury's, for example, has introduced home compostable wrappers and trays on organic food at 140 stores, partly because of growing disenchantment at the extent of wrapping and packaging of everyday food.
Sainsbury's said the problem had been picked up in research, with a spokeswoman saying: "Consumers' concern has increased in the past year."
Coca-Cola has been carrying out tests to reduce the weight of its plastic bottles and says it is studying the "feasibility" of biodegradable bottles. The Swiss giant Nestlé is developing a plastic tray for Dairy Milk and Black Magic chocolate boxes that disintegrates on contact with water.
Other companies are going biodegradable too, such as Marks & Spencer, which has introduced a corn starch film on sandwich boxes. And Tesco plans to introduce biodegradable carrier bags later this year and double the amount customers recycle at its stores.
Belu insists that its bottle - which is stocked by Waitrose and whose profits go to the charity WaterAid, which builds wells in developing countries - will stimulate consumer demand for biodegradable products. "Think about it - plastic made from corn. The potential for helping the planet is enormous," said Belu's Mai Simonsen.
But although welcomed by environmental groups, such piecemeal moves may not have enough impact to turn back the tide of rubbish in an inveterate throwaway society.
Many environmentalists are questioning whether we need to be buying so many products in the first place, and say bottled water is a case in point. One recent study by the US-based Earth Policy Institute estimated that bottled water is 10,000 times more environmentally damaging than tap water because of the effort involved in extraction, packaging and transportation. The US's second most imported brand, Fiji, is shipped around the world from the middle of the South Pacific. Yet global sales of bottled water have leapt by 57 per cent in a decade, to 154 billion litres in 2004.
"Why not drink from the tap?" suggested Anna Watson, of Friends of the Earth. "We should celebrate the fact that we have fantastic drinking water in this country. We ask: do you need that product and do you need that packaging? The bottled water industry is very clever selling us something we do not need."
Norman Baker MP, chair of the All-Party Environment Group, said: "It's entirely laudable to try to help WaterAid, but increasing sales of bottled water is not the way to do it. Bottled water is extremely damaging for the environment; the best thing to do is to drink tap water. Biodegradeable materials are better than non-biodegradeable materials but there's no substitute for proper environmental action. People should be minimising their waste."
British families are estimated to be inadvertently paying out £460 a year on food packaging, which includes such seemingly absurd examples as shrink-wrapped coconuts.
Ministers are concerned about how wasteful Britain is in comparison with the rest of Europe, where recycling rates are often double ours. And improvements in recycling rates have been matched by rises in consumption, adding to the plastic mountain dumped in holes in the ground - where it will remain for 1,000 years. Officials say that the annual amount thrown away in England and Wales - 100 million tons a year - is growing by 3 per cent, about the same level of economic growth.
Belu executives insist that people will always demand drinks on the go and says the potential from introducing biodegradable bottles is "enormous".
Although sturdy enough to hold half a litre of Welsh mineral water, its "bio bottle" breaks down in 12 weeks with commercial composting, although the process takes longer in domestic composts, between nine months and a year. As yet there are no commercial composting in the UK for such bottles and the other downside is that the corn polymer is shipped in from the US.
Reed Paget, managing director of the company, said: "Hopefully, our bottle will kick-start the market and consumers will say 'we really like this idea' and encourage bigger companies."
The bottle retails for about 45p. The purchase of one bottle will, the company says, fund clean drinking water for one person in India or Africa for a month.
* Britain uses 20 times more plastic now than it did 50 years ago
* Only 22 per cent of household rubbish is recycled. Most goes straight to landfill
* Of the 15 pre-expansion countries in the EU, only Greece and Portugal dump more rubbish in the ground
* Packaging waste weighs in at 9 million tons - 5 million of it from homes
* By quantity, most packaging is plastic (53 per cent), followed by paper/cardboard (25 per cent), glass (10 per cent), metals (7 per cent) and mixed materials (5 per cent).
* Britons use 275,000 tons of plastic bottles each year - 15 million a day
* Most water bottles are made from PET plastic, a crude oil extract. Eight per cent of oil production goes into plastics
* Sources: Department for Environment and Rural Affairs, Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment and Belu.Reuse content
David Balhuizen at ethical water brand Belu explains the catalysts and barriers around its latest packaging innovations.
For us to make an impact, we need to provide where people use it the most
If you met David Balhuizen at all during World Water Week, you might have seen him carrying a melon. “It’s a really fun way of celebrating World Water Week,” Belu’s head of operations tells me. “It’s a great talking point – everyone asks you why you’re carrying a watermelon around.”
I can’t help asking why. Millions of girls around the world spend hours carrying water in jerry cans that are often twice the weight of one watermelon, he explains – which is 92% clean, fresh water, unlike the dirty water they are carrying.
But when he’s not bearing large fruit, Balhuizen’s role is to help bring Belu’s bottled water to the market with the lowest environmental impact possible. Belu donates 100% of profits to the UK charity WaterAid. Belu’s carbon hot spot is its raw material sourcing, i.e. the glass and plastic in its packaging, which is why it’s focusing much of its innovation efforts here. The water firm recently developed the UK’s first sparkling water bottle made with 50% rPET, and last year its ‘Ethical glass’ – a bottle that is 16% lighter than its predecessor. Several brands have also adopted this bottle, allowing Belu to make an impact across the industry.
Not only that, but the water firm has just announced a partnership with the Cobra Foundation, creating a specially designed co-branded bottle, which will help bring Belu’s water to more restaurants across the UK.
Balhuizen tells me more about the issues around packaging, and Belu’s mission to make an impact.
Recent statistics show that bottled water is 2,000 times more intensive than tap water. Why did you choose bottled water to make an impact?
Many years ago our founder collaborated in the ‘Tap’ campaign to promote tap water as the most sustainable alternative. But the focus around bottled water is because this is an easy product to do something positive with, and the bottle water market is £1.8bn in the UK alone. To do something positive with all those pounds, we wanted to put something in the market that is a positive alternative. When quality and price are equal, consumers can make a positive choice. Therefore, if they have to drink bottled water, at least there is a better way of choosing one.
Bottled water is a growing market in the UK. How does Belu compare to other brands with a similar vision?
There are other waters that contribute to charity and water brands who try to do the best things with their packaging- e.g. Buxton has a very lightweight bottle - but there is no-one that combines the two. We are the only one in the UK water industry that use 50% rPET in our plastic at the moment.
Does this come at a price?
The use of rPET comes at a premium but we do not pass this on to customers because we believe it’s the right thing to use. We make choices that could be seen as anti-commercial in order to protect our ethics. Paying more for our raw materials is a way of saying we take our responsibility first, and take our profit second.
Why do you use plastic packaging, and have you considered other alternatives e.g. water in a box?
We are trying to look at all packaging options: water in a box is in fact one of them. At the moment it’s not in the mainstream, and for us to make the biggest impact, we need to provide options that people will use most. For something to be sustainable it needs to be a positive alternative to an existing product and made available to a wide customer base.
We currently make the most inroads in our core glass market – selling to restaurants, bars and hotels. That’s why we introduced Ethical Glass: the lightest weight bottle for still and sparkling natural mineral water, reducing our carbon footprint by 16%.
What are the benefits of not keeping this to yourself?
It’s also used by other water brands; therefore we have a positive impact not only on our footprint but also on those who use Ethical Glass. A royalty from that bottle goes to Water Aid, even if other brands sell it.
Where did this innovation come from?
It all starts with a desire and a passion to do something better. There are certain things you need to weigh up – what is feasible with the current technology and what the questions are that nobody yet has asked. I found out that our bottles get heavier and heavier over the years because the moulds which they come out of grow bigger and bigger. That is unacceptable; who is paying attention to that?
Why is a bottle that should be 450g suddenly coming out the factory at 480g? That’s 30g extra glass. That’s when I started to investigate and ask the questions about the process for reducing this.
What were the barriers?
The barriers are internal carbonation levels– if you have a carbonated product, you need to make sure the structure of the bottle makes it safe to use, so it doesn’t blow up on the line, or worse, with customers. There are certain things that you can’t do, but technology always moves on so the question that you ask today, might get a different answer then when you asked the same question three years ago.
Especially with rPET it’s the case. The technology in processing recycled plastic and turning that into new usable PET has just moved so quickly. The rPET that we use is made by some of the most advanced suppliers in the UK. We think it’s an absolutely fantastic result.
Can you tell the difference?
You can see a slight colour difference, but only if you compare the bottles very closely. In my experience, it’s not something consumers pay so much attention to. We try and put the story at the forefront explain that these are UK-used plastic bottles coming back to you to save emissions.
Do you have more packaging innovations on the horizon?
We do. We’re looking at how to increase the rPET content. There’s something we’re working on that will drastically reduce the carbon footprint of water delivery – but it’s something I can’t really talk about yet. It’s a trial.
According to your latest report, 71% of your emissions come from the raw material stage. As well as innovating packaging, how do you offset this to become carbon neutral?
Currently we’re investing in an Indian run river hydropower project. This is a local project where our investments are the only ones for the year. It gives them the ability to invest in clean technology.
Second to that is the social impact. This is one of the first projects in India that is verified to the Social Carbon Standard, which doesn’t only deliver clean tech but also delivers social impact. This means they measure how many jobs are created, but also the project provides support and education to very poor physically disabled children in special schools. They don’t only have their own business generating clean energy but the benefit of the investment gets put into the local community.
What about sourcing the water itself?
Out of all the soft drinks, water is the least carbon-intensive compared to other soft drinks. We don’t need to source any raw materials in terms of oranges or sugar cane. If you looked at the carbon footprint of sugary soft drinks, the impact of their packaging– although in absolute terms probably the same– is at a lower percentage as a whole because their overall carbon footprint is much higher because they use more complex ingredients that require more energy in sourcing and manufacturing. For us, the water comes out of the ground, it is pure and stable within its mineral analysis for many years. It goes from the ground straight to the bottle, minus a few filters for dirt and debris.The water itself is an incredibly carbon–light product.
The sentiment near the end of the report is that water is just the beginning.
Water is the starting point for everything to do with life. It’s not always a happy story – with acute human suffering for those without access to safe clean water, all problems compound when water is not available. We need a constant reminder that water is the first basic need.
This is a great example of WaterAid not just investing in clean water but in clean technology: in a BioGas café in Ethopia, we met eight women who previously didn’t have jobs or status in their society. In this cafe they get the experience and empowerment of running this project where food waste and human waste is collected together to create methane biogas and they use that gas to cook with. The profits of the food they cook keep the center running. They have a garden, people can use toilets for a very small fee and showers - people come off the streets getting everything that they need. On top of that, it creates social value with a place where people can catch up, chat and build a sense of community. For us it was really important to prove that the business model of social enterprise is a sustainable one.
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