In a world where clean running water is increasingly becoming a thing of privileged few, plastic bottles are now the top contributor to ocean waste and one of the top three contributors to landfill.
And surprisingly, it isn’t only in areas of the world where clean tap water is rare that plastic bottles are commonplace. In America, approximately 50 billion bottles of water are consumed per annum, that’s 1500 every second.
Of course, a “bottle for life” is the most eco-friendly option, and one which is by far preferable to buying single-use plastic bottles, but there will always be a demand for packaged water on-demand.
So, with conveniently bottled water such a prized consumable, what are manufacturers doing to curb the influx of plastic waste that they create?
The Challenges in Creating Plastic Alternatives
Seeing the wall to wall shelves of plastic water bottles in supermarkets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that manufacturers aren’t taking the issue of waste seriously. However, there are a number of challenges that are slowing the progress of change.
Any alternative to the plastic bottle must meet a number of criteria. Namely, it must be robust enough to handle transportation, it can’t break down too quickly due to storage needs, it also can't break down too slowly if it is truly an eco-friendly option, it can’t use plastic materials for waterproofing, but also can’t leach or leak.
Alongside these key issues is the importance of finding a truly biodegradable option, not simply recyclable or compostable. The distinction is an important one, but one which is widely misunderstood.
Compostable vs Recyclable vs Biodegradable
Recyclable = good. Non-recyclable = bad. Right? Well, yes, but that’s far from the end of it. After all, what good is a recyclable bottle if it ends up in the ocean? Instead, the future of packaging is products which can breakdown into natural compounds, returning to the Earth regardless of where they end up. That leaves us with compostable and biodegradable - what’s the difference?
Products that are compostable have the ability to decompose in your average backyard compost bin. The complication with this method is that composting requires millions of microorganisms to be present in the mix, combined with enough moisture, heat and oxygen to break down the product. This combination isn’t present in landfill, where the majority of waste ends up.
Unlike compostable products, biodegradable materials breakdown even without the perfect storm of environmental factors. While heat and moisture will speed up the degradation, the anaerobic (without air) process will occur regardless. A truly biodegradable product will breakdown whether it finds its way into landfill, a compost bin, or waterways,
New Innovations in Plastic Bottle Packaging
In the last few years, there have been a number of innovations created in the quest to put an end to the use of single-use plastics in the drinks industry. Here are just a few of the alternatives which have shown the most promise:
Biodegradable Algae Bottles
The creation of Ari Jónsson, an Icelandic student of product design, these bottles are made from powdered agar, a form of red algae. The agar is mixed with water to create a jelly-like substance which is then put into a bottle mould and chilled to keep its shape. When filled with water, the bottle holds its shape, but when emptied it will slowly collapse and biodegrade.
A fantastic innovation, but not one likely to be marketable on a large scale as it is prone to tearing and can leach its naturally salty taste into the contents over time.
Biodegradable Sugar Bottles
Scientists at the University of Bath have created an alternative to plastic, using only sugar and carbon dioxide. The combination of ingredients creates a polycarbonate, a tough plastic material which is robust and non-toxic.
This is a promising invention and one which is already being looked into for its potential to be rolled out on a larger scale.
Biodegradable Paper Bottles
With a casing made from 100% recycled paper, an 100% natural inner lining and a steel cap, Choose Packaging has designed their bottles to completely disintegrate within a year of use. The cap rusts down into natural zinc oxide, while the bottle itself is completely biodegradable.
Choose water bottles are set to hit UK shelves later this year.
An American company making breakthroughs in the use of vegan polymers, Cove has created a water bottle made entirely of naturally-occurring and biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). Again, these bottles have been designed to break down entirely, whether added to compost, dumped in landfill, or washed into the river or ocean.
Cove water bottles will be available to US customers later this year.
The Demand for Change
With so many exciting developments in the pipeline, it’s anyone’s guess how many alternatives to plastic bottles will make the final cut, and how many will make their way into the average consumer’s home. What we do know, is that the tide is changing and with demand from eco-conscious customers, supply is bound to follow.