The future of water bottles packaging

From seaweed pouches to bioplastics, the ways that water is delivered to consumers is bound to change, and for the better.

The 2019 London Marathon did something unexpected and innovative: instead of handing water bottles out to runners as they passed, volunteers handed them water sealed in pouches made from seaweed. After tearing the pouch with their teeth and drinking the water, the runners had a choice—they could either swallow the edible film (it doesn’t taste like seaweed, its manufacturer says), or throw it on the ground, so that they could be collected as trash afterwards. The pouches, which biodegrade within six weeks, pose none of the long term pollution worries of plastic, which takes hundreds of years to decompose.

If such a pouch—or other innovation—becomes feasible to produce at scale and widely used, it would mark a significant moment in the history of how water is delivered to consumers, equivalent to the rise of the plastic bottle itself. Plastic bottles made of a lightweight, flexible, recyclable material known as PET first appeared in 1989, and became the industry standard within just a few years. Today, their presence is ubiquitous, and the need for a future replacement is clear: the world produces more than 1 million plastic bottles per minute, but only 50% of them get recycled, and of those, just 7% become new bottles. Confronted with this challenge, the industry is looking for new alternatives, which are evolving quickly.

Where plastic bottles go from here

With PET bottles the current standard, much focus is on how to make sure that more of them are recycled, thus reducing the amount of virgin plastic created and ensuring that fewer bottles end up at large in the environment. Some of this can happen through packaging designed to better communicate with and “nudge” consumers towards recycling. Most global brands have commitments in place to increase the amount of recycled plastic they are currently using in their bottles, and to support innovative recycling efforts in places without formal collection systems.

NGOs like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) are partnering with governments and the private sector to push forward the “circular economy” as an ultimate objective, where packaging is designed to be entirely recyclable, and where eventually 100% of plastic—made from renewable materials—is captured and recycled into new packages. As the consulting firm McKinsey notes, a circular economy would provide Europe with not just environmental benefits, but a net economic gain of €1.8 trillion by 2030.

Future thinking

Beyond that lie innovations to bioplastics, made from renewable plant materials. When it comes to bottles, this generally involves using the sugars present in plants like corn, or sugar-cane, to produce a material called PLA, which can then be molded to different shapes. Current technology limits the presence of bio-PET in bottles to about 30%, but a global alliance of drinks-producers is cooperating to develop a next generation 100% bio-PET bottle, free of any petroleum product.

Research is ongoing further into compostable non-plastic packaging. From a paper bottle lined with a proprietary material that decomposes within three weeks, to using the shells of crustaceans to make bottles. Innovation can even mean considering technology that already exists: some companies are selling water in paper cartons, or aluminum cans, which are more easily recycled than plastic.

Regardless of the way forward chosen, the future of water delivery is clear. It will be innovative, more sustainable, and more recyclable.