Greenwashing: Boxed Water

This is the first report in a series about companies “greenwashing” products to make them appear to be better for the environment than they actually are. Keep an eye on the Periodic Fabels blog for future updates to the series. 

Boxed water has positioned itself as the eco-friendly alternative to plastic bottled water. One brand literally has named itself Boxed Water Is Better. But the reality is that boxed water is not the environmental savior it touts itself to be. 

The boxed water industry says it has four main reasons why it claims the box is better for the environment than plastic water bottles. First, cartons are made from renewable resources while plastic bottles are not. Second, water cartons are 100% recyclable. Third, 75% of plastic water bottles are not recycled and end up in landfills or elsewhere. Fourth, paper is biodegradable in a few months while plastic bottles can take centuries to decompose.

Each claim is misleading. 

Boxed water cartons are not made entirely from paper, the material they tout as the renewable product used to make the cartons. The cartons are also made of aluminum and plastic film. The cartons used by Boxed Water Is Better are 74 percent paper, 1 percent aluminum, and 25 percent plastic and other materials. The plastic is used to waterproof the paper and the aluminum is used to block out light and seal contents from oxygen. (There’s a reason paper airplanes don’t fly in the rain.) As the boxed water industry noted, plastic is not a renewable resource and neither is aluminum. 

New aluminum is sourced through bauxite strip mining, a process that displaces wildlife and erodes the soil. The production of paper is also a carbon-intensive process that can disrupt wildlife as trees are cut down and processed into pulp. These processes aren’t exactly eco-friendly. 

The materials needed to create the cartons are part of the reason that it is misleading for the boxed water industry to tout the recyclability of cartons. In reality, the layered cartons require a special facility to be properly recycled. Many municipalities do not have access to that type of facility. 

Only 62% of Americans live in an area with curbside recycling for cartons. On the other hand, 87% of Americans have easy access to recycling for PET plastic, which is the plastic resin used in clear water bottles. PET is also 100 percent recyclable and has been used to create everything from fleece sweaters to kitchen cabinets

Boxed Water Is Better scoffed at PET for having a recycling rate of 25 percent. (The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the recycling rate for PET is actually 29 percent.) But cartons have an even lower recycling rate of just 16 percent. The carton industry has offered mail-in recycling centers, but it is difficult to imagine that Americans would pay to mail cartons to a facility to be recycled when only 16% will bring cartons to their curbside. 

While it is true that improperly disposed water bottles can end up in the ocean, there is little evidence to suggest that water bottles used in the U.S. contribute to the plastic waste in the ocean. Researchers found in a peer-reviewed study that only 0.9 percent of the mismanaged plastic in the ocean can be traced back to the U.S. The bulk of the plastic waste in the ocean is from China and the majority of the plastic is abandoned fishing equipment, not small bottles. 

The boxed water industry is similarly misleading with its claim to being biodegradable. Cardboard can decompose in two to six months as the industry suggests, but that does not mean that cartons decompose in that same time frame. The other materials in cartons do not decompose and composting experts advise against composting cartons because the films on the packaging do not decompose.  

Just because a product touts itself as “better” for the environment and uses lots of outdoor nature photos in its marketing does not always mean that those products are better for the environment. Consumers must be aware of ploys used by some industries to cash in on the fact that many people care about keeping the planet clean.