Fact: Vendors Need to Know About the Bottled Water Environmental Controversy

May 1, 2008
While bottled water sales remain high, the industry must keep customers informed and stay proactive on water quality issues.

Given the myriad of challenges facing the refreshment services industry today, the last thing vending and OCS operators need is to be associated with products that negatively impact the environment or are of questionable safety.

Not only is this occurring, but it has afflicted one of the few products showing strong growth in recent years: bottled water. Opposition to bottled water is based on concerns about the environmental impact of packaging, depletion of water resources, and actual water quality.


For years, soda and other beverages have been bottled in plastic, but once water in PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles came on the scene, the war began between environmentalists and plastics. Interestingly enough, the concern about plastic packaging does not extend to soda, energy drinks or other products.

The Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization, offers a pamphlet citing selective facts about bottled water, such as that nine out of 10 bottles of water end up as garbage or litter.

This lack of recycling is parroted in the Seattle Times, which reported Mayor Greg Nickels saying only one in 10 bottles is recycled. He complained bottled water is a waste of money and resources when compared to using city water. Chicago Alderman George Cardenas proposed a tax on bottled water due to the nearly $40 million shortfall in the city’s water and sewer funds because people weren’t using public water. He feels the tax will help dissuade people from buying bottled water.


The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) has answered the criticism with numerous press releases. It recommends any action to reduce the environmental impact of plastic be widespread and not against one industry – such as bottled water. All major manufacturers’ bottled water containers are recyclable and should be recycled through local municipality recycling systems, according to the IBWA.

IBWA further claims the bottled water industry is assisting in efforts to increase recycling programs.


Plastic is a recyclable material that is turned into carpeting and textiles, with future applications for clothing, coating for paper and waterproofing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The American Plastics Council (APC) says plastics production accounts for 4 percent of U.S. energy consumption.

Plastics allow manufacturers to reduce materials used, energy consumed, and waste generated in making many products. In 1997, the APC estimated half of all U.S. communities, almost 19,400, collected plastics for recycling. The EPA reported 31 percent of PET bottles are recycled (both water and soft drink bottles). Over the past 15 years, the percentage of waste this country recycles has almost doubled.

The bottled water industry has already acted to reduce its environmental footprint through even lighter weight packaging and direct support in recycling education and advocacy programs.


Nestlé Water North America reports that moving to PET bottles has optimized packaging weight, resulting in less environmental damage than earlier materials. Fifteen years ago, when bottles were made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), 90 grams produced just two 1.5-liter bottles, where the same amount of PET now produces three, a 33-percent reduction.

Nestlé has encouraged its main PET suppliers to manufacture resins with a lower than normal degree of viscosity, which has produced energy savings of 5 percent. A spokesperson for Nestlé noted the new “Eco-Shape” bottle available in the company’s spring water brands and Nestlé Pure Life has the least plastic content (30 percent less) of all half-liter bottles in the marketplace. It will reduce the company’s PET resin by 65 million pounds in 2008.

Recycling is an extremely important consideration to Nestlé Water North America. Its CEO, Kim Jeffery, is chairing the Recycling Task Force for the American Beverage Association to develop comprehensive recycling programs that could be models for significantly improving recycling rates.

PepsiCo Inc.’s Aquafina bottles are completely recyclable (cap and label, too). Aquafina is supporting various recycling programs by partnering with organizations such as Keep American Beautiful, the National Recycling Coalition and Return the Warmth, which transformed recycled Aquafina bottles into 100,000 fleece jackets for children.

The most popular Aquafina size, a half liter, is made with 35 percent less plastic than in 2000, saving over 45 million pounds of plastic per year, the company noted.


Perceived water contamination in bottled water is another consumer issue the industry faces.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s water Website makes the following statement about bottled water: “In 1999, NRDC conducted 1,000 separate tests of more than 100 brands of bottled water and concluded that bottled water is not necessarily any purer or any safer than city tap water. Some bottled water is of very high quality and is very pure; other brands of bottled water contain elevated levels of arsenic, bacteria, or other contaminants.” Currently, the NRDC does not oppose bottled water, but rather is fighting for cleaner tap water.

Consumer advocates also question the integrity of government regulation to ensure the safety of bottled water.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates municipal water. The Sierra Club claims the FDA and state agencies don’t do as good of a job regulating water quality as the EPA. (Bottled water definitions revised in April of 2007 can be found at the FDA Website – 21 C.F.R. §165.110.)

Joe Doss, International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) president and CEO, argued the FDA oversight is sufficient. In addition, IBWA members have to agree to unannounced inspections of their water to make sure it meets FDA regulations as well as the IBWA model code. In 1982, the IBWA model code was created due to the limited scope of the FDA’s regulations for bottled water. Since then, the FDA has promulgated the regulations, but the IBWA has also raised the standards in order to distinguish IBWA bottlers from others in the industry.

In addition, member companies can hire United Laboratories (UL) or NSF International to certify a product. “Those two marks (UL and NSF) have come to mean quality,” said Doss.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently announced a new certification program for bottled water to ensure consumers the bottled water they are drinking has been validated by UL to meet the FDA and IBWA requirements for quality and safety.

“The introduction of this new mark for bottled water is a natural extension of UL’s commitment to public safety,” said Jeff Smith, general manager, UL global water business, in a prepared statement. “Consumers can feel confident that when they see the UL Certified Water Quality Mark on bottled water, that the global leader in product safety certification, with more than 100 years of service, has independently tested the safety and quality of the water.”


Still another issue is the quality of bottled water. Some activists accuse the bottled water industry of falsely advertising its products are more purified than municipal water when in fact the bottler gets the water from a municipal source.

The IBWA’s Doss claims the municipal source bottled water takes tap water and runs it through a variety of filters such as reverse osmosis, granulated carbon filtration, or a 1 micron absolute filters. Coca-Cola Co.’s Dasani, for example, is purified water. The filtration removes organic matter, impurities, total dissolved solids (solids in the water invisible to the human eye), etc. To enhance the taste of the purified water, Dasani adds minerals back into the water. This type of filtration would also remove any pharmaceuticals, said Doss, which have recently been found in drinking water.

Aquafina’s Website includes information on its seven-step process, HydRO-7™, to purify its municipality-sourced water.


Nestlé Waters North America is one of the largest suppliers of bottled water, offering spring, mineral and purified bottled water. Jane Lazgin, director of corporate communications, explained the company sources water in three ways. There are regional spring brands including Ice Mountain in the Midwest, Arrowhead in the West, and Deer Park in the East. These waters are from regional underground springs, said Lazgin. They conform to the FDA requirement for spring waters.

There are quality assurance procedures in place such as regular testing of the spring, good manufacturing practices and ozonation (a disinfectant process using ozone that ensures micro-biological stabilization of the water) done to the spring water brands. The mineral content of spring water is left untouched.

Nestlé also carries a number of imported mineral waters and their nationally distributed purified water, Nestlé Pure Life. Pure Life is run through reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, ultraviolet light, and ozonation, said Lazgin. Because it’s a purified water, Pure Life is different than tap water, said Lazgin. The purity of the water is protected by the sanitary bottle, making the chlorine used in municipal water treatment, possibly affecting the taste, unnecessary. Much of this water is sourced from groundwater wells, although some does come from municipalities.

Nestlé publishes quality reports based on independent testing results that are comparable to public drinking water on its Website.


Opposition to bottled water, especially spring waters, also stems from concern for natural resources. The Sierra Club accuses large bottlers of negatively impacting the environment in search of water sources for increasing bottled water demand.

Lazgin explained that Nestlé employs 11 national resource managers, which include geologists and engineers, to oversee the selection, monitoring and protection of springs. They study the formations, sustainability and the recharge rate from rainfall. The company usually buys land surrounding its water sources and monitors nearby waterways for changes. Every aquifer is unique. Nestlé looks carefully at how the aquifer is replenished, which is the first barrier to quality assurance, said Lazgin.

Nestlé also focuses on the environment in its manufacturing processes. It currently has five

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified beverage factories, with three more candidates, said Lazgin. (LEED is a federal program for energy and environmental management.) Nestlé even produces the plastic bottles in the same facilities the water is bottled in, added Kevin Thompson, national vending manager, to reduce costs and the environmental impact of transporting empty bottles.


According the Lazgin, most people purchase bottled water as a refreshment beverage. Since the 1990s, when bottled water was introduced in PET bottles, the sales rose as people chose bottled water instead of soda when they bought products away from the home. Around 2000, soda sales went flat, whereas bottled water sales continued to rise. “People still drink a lot of soft drinks, but the migration to bottled water is clear; that we can tell from sales figures,” said Lazgin.

According to Lazgin, 52 percent of people say they would buy soda if bottled water wasn’t available. And 75 percent of those who drink bottled water also drink tap water.

According to the IBWA, an added advantage to bottled water is convenience and consistency. Catastrophic events often affect public water systems, leaving bottled water as the best option for clean, safe water. And consumers do not usually switch solely to bottled water, but drink a combination of both. “It’s not a bottled water versus tap water issue,” said Doss. “People drink both.”


Single-serve bottled water has experienced 28 percent growth in the last two years, according to 2007 research by Mintel International Group Inc. Vending operators concurred that bottled water continued to be among their fastest growing products in 2006, according to the Automatic Merchandiser State of the Vending Industry Report.

Consumers perceive bottled water specifically as the most healthy beverage, best thirst quencher and best fit for their lifestyle goals, according to Mintel. In fact, convenience is the number one reason consumers are buying bottled water, 59 percent, versus using tap water.

Consumers continue to buy bottled water and the percentage of those changing their buying habits based on environmental rhetoric remains small. But the battle in the public eye is far from over. Whether located in an area feeling the pressure to ban bottled water or not, vending operators should know about the issue and have talking points ready. Bottled water is a healthy option and the bottles are completely recyclable.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, continue to make strides to use less material and help with recycling efforts.


Put customer’s minds at ease. Make sure you give them accurate information about the source of water and filtration processes of the bottled water you offer. Cite sources to prevent liability.

Promote Plastic Recycling
Plastic is not just a bottled water issue, it’s a packaging issue and should be addressed with recycling programs. Suggest moving a recycling container to the break room or work with the location to start a recycling program.

Offer Alternatives
Point-of-use water filtering systems are a good alternative if the customer is adamant about eliminating bottled water.
Even 5-gallon jug coolers might be an option if your company can collect them and have them sanitized and reused.

For More Information, contact:

Aquafina (PepsiCo Inc.)
914-253-2000; www.aquafina.com

Dasani (Coca-Cola Co.)
800-GET COKE; www.Dasani.com/flash.htm

Environmental protection Agency (EPA)
202-272-0167 (directory); www.epa.gov

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
888-INFO-FDA; www.fda.gov

International Bottled Water Association (IBWA)
703-683-5213; www.bottledwater.org

Nestle Waters North America
203-531-4100; www.nestle-watersna.com

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
212-727-2700; www.nrdc.org

Sierra Club
415-977-5500; www.sierraclub.org


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