Carton Water Bottles, Sustainable Choice or Environmental Challenge?

Carton Water Bottles, Sustainable Choice or Environmental Challenge?

We get a lot of questions about carton water bottles. While we'll always promote reuse, we also feel it's essential for great water choices to be on the market to deter from single-use plastic bottled water. But those choices should be made with a clear understanding. So, when it comes to carton water bottles, here's the reality. 

The marketplace has witnessed a notable shift towards more sustainable packaging; single-use water cartons have entered the market as a "better choice" than single-use plastic bottles. Carton water bottles are often perceived as a more sustainable choice for beverages like milk, juices, and even water. However, the sustainability of water cartons is a complex issue, with many questions. So here are some answers. 

What are water cartons made of?

Unlike simple milk cartons made of paper and wax, which are relatively straightforward in their recycling process, carton water bottles present a more challenging scenario. These cartons are a composite of multiple materials – a blend of layers containing 6% bioplastic, 5% aluminum, 14% plastic sheet, and 75% cardboard – intricately bonded together. This multi-layered construction is what makes cartons both functional and problematic.

How are water cartons recycled?

The recycling process for these cartons is more complex. Each component – paper, plastic, and Aluminum – must be meticulously separated before they can be effectively recycled. This disassembly is complicated and labor-intensive and requires specialized facilities capable of handling such complex tasks. As a result, these cartons often need to be shipped long distances to reach the few facilities equipped for this process. For example, we know that in the Bay Area, the recycled cartons are put on a truck and shipped to Mexico. This added transportation increases the carbon footprint of the recycling process and reflects the inherent challenges in managing what was initially thought to be an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles.

Looking deeper into the lifecycle of carton water bottles, it becomes increasingly evident that the journey from a seemingly sustainable packaging solution to an environmentally friendly option has complexities and challenges that need careful consideration. 

Are water cartons downcycled? 

The concept of downcycling is critical in understanding carton water bottles' sustainability challenges. Downcycling refers to the process where materials are recycled into products of lower quality or functionality. In the case of water cartons, while the paper content can be recycled into new paper products, the combined aluminum and plastic layer, termed 'polyaluminum', cannot be recycled back into either pure Aluminum or pure plastic. Instead, it is downcycled into lower-value products like car floor mats or plastic pens, which eventually end up in landfills. This process diminishes the lifecycle of the materials and contributes to waste, as these downcycled products are often non-recyclable and have a shorter lifespan.

A better place for Aluminum 

Aluminum containers are known for their high recycling rates and efficient recycling process, which is why they stand out as the most sustainable option. Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely without loss of quality, allowing it to re-enter the production cycle repeatedly, thus embodying the principles of a circular economy. This infinite recyclability, combined with the energy savings from using recycled Aluminum over virgin Aluminum, underscores aluminum containers' sustainability superiority compared to single-use carton water bottles and plastic bottles.

Closing the loop - reuse over recycling

While recycling is a critical component of waste management, the ultimate goal in sustainability is to minimize waste generation in the first place. In this context, reuse emerges as the most effective strategy. Reusable bottles for water, ideally made from highly recyclable, durable materials, significantly reduce the need for single-use packaging. By keeping materials in use for as long as possible, reuse minimizes the environmental impact associated with the production and recycling of packaging materials. As we move towards more sustainable consumption patterns, the emphasis should increasingly shift from recycling to reusing, aligning with the principles of a circular economy where resource utilization is optimized and waste generation is minimized.

Has there been a misleading narrative of water cartons as sustainable?

Water cartons have positioned their packaging product in the market as a sustainable and recyclable alternative to conventional plastic packaging. However, a closer inspection reveals nuances in these claims. The assertion of sustainability largely hinges on the reduced use of plastics and the recyclability of their cartons. While these claims are technically accurate, we need to pay more attention to the complexities and limitations of the recycling process for water cartons. The reality is that the recycling of water cartons is contingent on the availability of specialized facilities, which are not universally accessible.

What does 'Recyclable Where Facilities Exist' mean?

The phrase "recyclable where facilities exist" is a critical caveat in the sustainability narrative of carton water bottles. This statement implies that while the cartons are technically recyclable, the actual recycling depends heavily on the geographical availability of advanced recycling facilities. In many regions, such facilities are scarce and nonexistent, leading to a significant portion of carton water bottles being diverted to landfills or incinerators. This geographical discrepancy in recycling capabilities raises questions about the overall effectiveness of water carton bottles as a sustainable packaging solution on a global scale.

The low global recycling rate of carton water bottles, reportedly around 26%, casts doubt on the practicality and efficiency of their recycling process. This low rate, combined with the need for complex recycling procedures, contradicts the water carton’s environmentally friendly image. Such insights suggest that while carton water bottles may offer certain environmental benefits over traditional plastic bottles, it falls short of being a wholly sustainable solution.

Is another single-use bottled water really the solution?

The single-use nature of these water cartons contributes to the growing problem of packaging waste. While they reduce the reliance on plastic, the mixed-material composition complicates recycling and increases the likelihood of these cartons ending up as waste. The environmental footprint of producing, transporting, and disposing of these single-use cartons remains a concern.

The problematic aspect of requiring virgin materials for carton bottles

Another aspect of concern is the reliance on virgin materials for the production of new carton water bottles. Despite advancements in material sciences, the production of water cartons still requires fresh inputs, primarily in the form of paperboard. This reliance on virgin materials perpetuates the cycle of resource extraction and consumption, undermining the principles of a truly sustainable and circular economy. In contrast, materials like Aluminum, which can be recycled repeatedly without significant degradation in quality, exemplify a more sustainable approach in packaging solutions.

What's the verdict on carton water bottles?

If you have a choice, you're better off opting for an aluminum container. While it's our hope that there are many sustainable options on the market, unless the carton you're using is simply paper and wax, it will have a hard time being recycled, and if it does make that triumph, it will then be downcycled into a lesser single-use byproduct, destined for the landfill. We've highlighted 10 truths about carton water bottle cartons, summarized here.

Carton water bottles are:

  • Single-use
  • Have a low recycling rate
  • "Recyclable where facilities exist"
  • Get downcycled
  • Not recycled 1:1
  • Requires virgin materials
  • Uses agriculture for packaging
  • Not built for long-term reuse
  • Not a closed-loop recycling system
  • Multiple complicated materials that cannot be easily recycled

While we want there to be diverse, sustainable options on the market, it's crucial to scrutinize the materials used, their assembly, and their eventual disposal to truly determine if it's a genuinely sustainable grab from the shelf. The best option will always be to #refillit.

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