The plastic water bottle industry is growing at an alarming rate, threatening to deplete natural resources and exacerbating climate, social and environmental crisis.
1. Fast-growing industry
More than 1 million bottles of water are sold every minute around the world and this figure is set to grow, according to a new report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. With global sales of bottled water expected to nearly double by 2030, concerns are growing over its environmental, climate and social cost.
According to the report, in 2021, global bottled water sales reached 350 billion liters and were valued at an estimated $270 billion, a figure expected to soar to $500 billion by 2030. Researchers analyzed data from 109 countries and found that the bottled water industry saw a 73% growth in sales from 2010 to 2020, making it one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.
In the US, the report says that in 2020, Nestlé Waters extracted 3 million liters of groundwater each day from Florida Springs, while in France, water company Danone extracted up to 10 million liters a day from Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps.
2. Resource depletion
Groundwater extracted to help fill billions of plastic bottles a year is jeopardizing drinking water resources and feeding the world’s plastic pollution crisis. The biggest source of groundwater depletion is agriculture, which uses water for irrigation. However, volumes taken by the bottled water industry can add extra pressure to an already depleting water source. “While such withdrawals are small in absolute terms, local impacts on water resources may be significant,” the report said, noting that more than 2 billion people globally rely on groundwater for their drinking needs.
Some bottle companies are operating in areas where there are already shortages in drinking water fueling conflicts with communities worried about potential adverse impacts of bottled water companies’ extraction.
Vladimir Smakhtin, co-author of the report and the former director of the UN water thinktank, told CNN that the industry’s expansion, and its potential to draw focus away from expanding public water infrastructure, may further worsen global inequities when it comes to water access, especially as the climate crisis intensifies.
While progress toward universal access to safe drinking water for all is significantly off-track, the expansion of bottled water markets slows this progress down, distracting attention and resources from accelerated public water supply systems development.Report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health
3. Developed vs developing nations
Bottled water is popular throughout the world, with the US, China and Indonesia as the largest consumers.
This perception is fueled by the corporations that promote bottled water as a pure product.Zeineb Bouhlel, lead author of the report
In contrast, countries in the Global South together represent roughly 60% of the market with its demand being linked to lack of reliable access to safe tap water. According to the report, estimates suggest that less than half of what the world pays for bottled water annually would be sufficient to ensure clean tap water access for hundreds of millions of people without it – for years.
4. Plastic pollution
On top of risking depleting natural resources and preventing public water infrastructure to flourish in key markets, the plastic bottles industry is exacerbating the “plastic crisis”.
The bottled water industry generated roughly 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, resulting in around 25 million tons of plastic waste — most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills. To illustrate the extent of the plastic waste generated by the bottles industry, the report said that it would be enough to fill a line of 40-ton trucks stretching from New York to Bangkok every year.