It’s not just plastic: water in single use cans, glass bottles or cartons will also damage environment

Embargo: 00:01 Wednesday 7 August 2019
Libby Peake Libby PeakeHead of resource policy020 7630

Shifting away from plastic to different materials in the bottled water market will cause different environmental problems, highlighted by new research. Losing the bottle: why we don’t need single use containers for water demonstrates that the only low impact option for hydration is a refillable container. [1]
It is increasingly easy in the UK to buy water in aluminium cans, glass bottles or cartons. But if these containers became even half as common as their plastic counterparts, their annual impact on the planet could be severe – including: 
  • Creating enough toxic waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall six times over (aluminium cans);
  • Resulting in as many emissions as are created by a population the size of Bath (glass bottles); or
  • Filling nearly 9,000 bin lorries with low quality containers that can’t be recycled back into containers (cartons)
The amount of bottled water consumed in the UK has doubled in the past 15 years, and is still rising. Traditionally, the market has been dominated by plastic, with the average UK adult using 150 single use plastic water bottles every year. [2]
Following rising concerns about plastic pollution, new formats are increasingly available, but these could cause new or different environmental problems. The good news is that switching to other single use container types usually isn’t necessary at all. Everyone in the UK has access to high quality tap water, and a typical refillable bottle only has to be used 15 times to have a lower carbon impact than a single use plastic bottle. [3]
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, said:
“‘Single-use’ was named word of the year in 2018 as the public became more aware of the impacts of our throwaway society. But so far, people are mainly targeting single use plastic and the concern hasn’t translated to other materials, which also have environmental consequences. 
“If we don’t need single use plastic water bottles, we also don’t need single use cans, cartons, or glass bottles for water. The good news is, it’s easy to do the right thing when it comes to drinking water and the environment. Tap water in refillable containers is the most sustainable option, and is hundreds of times cheaper to boot.”
Colin Church, chair of the Circular Economy Task Force and chief executive of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, said:
“Plastic pollution is a real environmental problem, but simply moving on to making single use items out of other materials isn’t always the right solution because they too will have drawbacks. The problem of single use water bottles is a powerful example of why we should aim to cut the amount of materials used in the first place. We need to reuse and refill more while thinking carefully about whether it is wise to switch to different materials.”
Natalie Fee, founder of City to Sea, which runs the Refill app and campaign, said:
“We live on a finite planet – we simply don’t have enough resources to keep fuelling our throwaway culture. Whether it’s plastic, aluminium or other materials, the extraction, manufacturing, transportation and recycling processes can come with a high environmental cost. The shift the planet needs and the public wants is away from disposability towards a culture of reusability. When it comes to drinking water on the go, refilling from taps and fountains is convenient and saves resources and money – what’s not to love about that?”
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser – resources, Green Alliance (available for interview), 020 7630 4529
Notes for editors
About Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of 40 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.
[1] Losing the bottle: why we don’t need single use containers for water is part of Green Alliance’s work for the Circular Economy Task Force, a forum for policy, innovation and business thinking on resource use in the UK. The current members include Kingfisher and SUEZ. 
The report can be found at: 
[2] Environmental Audit Committee, 2017, Plastic bottles: turning back the plastic tide
[3] A full methodology is available at: 

Related content