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The bottled water industry is on a journey

art with plastic cups

Disrupting the concept of single use consumption and production

The bottled water industry is on a journey. We’re trying to achieve the unachievable: not only ending plastic waste, but completely disrupting the concept of single use consumption and production. This is a journey because we don’t have the answers yet. This is about trying, testing, learning and trying again.

Bottles have long played a vital role in storing all types of liquids. From animal skins to terracotta vessels, to glass and now plastic, the bottle is also essential for keeping our beverages safe from harmful bacteria, ensuring they last for longer and that their nutrition is sealed until the moment of consumption.

PET is the preferred packaging material in the bottled water industry because it combines beverage protection with lightness, resistance and transparency. And, of course, it’s also 100% recyclable. The trouble is, it’s still not recycled each day.

Rethinking Plastics

Over the past 10 years, our sector has made substantial progress reducing the quantity of PET needed in a bottle – we’ve brought this down by 22% at Nestle. Recycled, or ‘r-PET’, is also featuring far more prominently – we’ve been including it since 2010 in North America.

Alongside many of our competitors, as part of the European Federation of Bottled Waters, we have pledged to use at least 25% rPET in our bottles by 2025.

In order to do this, we need to disrupt production systems and rapidly increase the availability of bio-based PET and find alternatives too.

18 months ago, in collaboration with Danone and Origin Materials (a green chemistry company based in Sacramento, California), we created the NaturALL Bottle Alliance to develop a bio-based PET that can be made at industrial scale.

water bottle bottom

We’re using biomass feedstocks like used cardboard and sawdust to make a new kind of PET. The technology represents a scientific breakthrough for the sector, and the Alliance aims to make it available to the entire food and beverage industry.

PepsiCo has just joined the Alliance. This is further proof of the importance of both this disruptive technology and the need to work together to move ahead quickly.

A New Plastics Economy

Nestlé is part of the New Plastics Economy, an initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that brings together companies, cities, philanthropists, policymakers, academics, students, NGOs, and citizens to rethink the future of plastics, starting with packaging.

But existing waste management systems are plateauing in their ability to increase post-consumer collection of PET bottles. They also cannot guarantee a viable supply of high-quality r-PET.

Collection and recycling systems currently vary dramatically from city-to-city, country-to-country. We believe that only solutions that embrace the entire plastics value chain can make a real difference.

So, like many other companies in the bottled water industry we’re piloting schemes to improve plastic collection, and sharing what we find to assess their scale-up and replicability: from technical interventions like reverse vending machines, to building an extended producer responsibility system.

In the US, Nestlé Waters has invested USD 6m in the Closed Loop Fund, a pooled financing initiative among business, government and community partners to establish innovative business models around collection and recycling.

An even more radical approach is needed in South America, Africa and Asia, where the recycling infrastructure is limited. Much of the system is informal and can be hazardous, working on potentially toxic rubbish dumps.

bunch of water bottles in hands

Developing a viable business model around plastic collection is a key part of that circular economy. This is where industry can play a leading role, by working with policy makers and expert organizations to be part of the solution and create a system in which bottles are collected before they end up in landfill.

Nevertheless, even if we crack the conundrum of Bio-PET, or we manage to catalyze a shift to circular infrastructure, one missing link still remains: the consumer.

Educating and informing the public on what can be recycled and how they can play their part is the final part of closing the loop on the circular economy. This is why we run campaigns like R-Generation in Italy, Argentina, the UK and Thailand; and How2Recycle in the US.

Is a new life for plastics possible?

Plastic has been a victim of its own success. It’s production and consumption is already affecting each and every one of us, and it will go on affecting generations to come, even if we make radical changes today.

Our research and development teams are working to accelerate sustainable, plastic alternatives. Our sustainability team is helping to co-create recycling and reuse systems that work in each city and country. And our marketing teams are on board to valorize plastics in the eye of the consumer.

Coming together with all the industry players in a genuine spirit of innovation, partnership and urgency is our only option to ensure a sustainable future for us all.