Aquafina’s Eco-Fina bottles shed 50% of their bottle weight to save 75 million pounds of plastic a year.

by Rick Lingle, Executive Editor

In its liquid form, water has molecules that absorb the red end of the spectrum and reflect blue, so that’s what our eyes see. Yet in its packaged form, water is taking on a decidedly greener hue, as more brands turn environmentally friendlier to meet consumer, retailer, and regulatory trends.

That’s particularly true for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which have received much environmental criticism due to their petrochemical beginnings and largely inglorious end in the trash as disposable, single-use carriers for water. Considering that more than 70% of PET bottles aren’t recycled, there seems to be some fuel for that fire. The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) pegs the PET bottle recycling rate for 2008 at 27%. That’s up nearly 10% from 2007 and part of an ongoing increase for each of the last five years.

Against that backdrop PET-bottled brands have turned greener for new launches and for repackaged versions of existing brands.

Thin is in: One sure way is go greener is to reduce the bottle weight. For example, PepsiCo’s Aquafina brand began shipping its new Eco-Fina bottles in April, made with 50% less plastic than regular Aquafina bottles. At 10.9 grams (the standard weight is 16 grams), it’s the lightest half-liter bottle of any nationally distributed bottled water brand in the market, PepsiCo claims. The move is estimated to save 75 million pounds of plastic each year. Aquafina also planned to remove the corrugated base pads from 24-packs, thus saving 20 million pounds of corrugated yearly.

“We’re excited to answer the call of our consumers by offering the same great-tasting, pure water in a much lighter and more eco-friendly 100% recyclable bottle,” says Rick Gomez, chief marketing officer, hydration brands at Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages.

And then there’s Sidel’s NoBottle, an ultra-light (9.9 grams) PET bottle that the company has been promoting since 2007. Much more lightweighting and it would be a pouch. At press time, the NoBottle had no announced customers.

Another way to go green is to incorporate recycled content into the bottle.

Coca-Cola’s new PlantBottle, a ‘hybrid’ made from petroleum and plant materials, debuts for Dasani water and other company products.

Recycled commitment

Most beverage companies are looking for ways to use less virgin plastic and more recycled content, says Dennis Sabourin, executive director of NAPCOR. “They’re not doing it for economic reasons. It’s not cheaper. In many cases it’s more expensive” to use recycled plastic, he adds, though supporting recycling is seen as an important part of corporate sustainability efforts.

Nestlé Waters North America began selling in summer 2009 at Whole Foods and noncompeting venues the “re-source” water made from 25% percent recycled plastic. Whole Foods stores are being equipped with interactive “reverse-vending” machines, supplied by Waste Management subsidiary GreenOps, that accept plastic and other containers for recycling.

Nestlé plans to increase the amount of recycled plastic in the bottles over time.

There are other approaches to PET-based environmental friendliness that don’t involve weight reduction or recycled content, including one brand whose greenness doesn’t come from the container.

Another tack is to use biopolymers to rid the bottle of petroleum-based ingredients.

Petroleum-free and ‘hybrid’ bottles A number of bottled water brands have been introduced the past few years in bottles made of NatureWorks LLC’s Ingeo polylactic acid (PLA), a biopolymer derived from corn and other grown materials. In 2008, Primo Water Corp. of Winston-Salem, N.C., became the first bottled water brand sold nationally in bottles made from a renewable material.

As with all polymers, whether from petroleum or plants, there’s been increased activity around recovery and end-market development. In 2008, Primo helped form the Bioplastics Recycling Consortium, an organization to develop a recovery system and end markets for post-consumer bioplastic materials. In 2009, Keystone Water Co., Lake Placid, Fla., launched “re:newel” brand water in PLA bottles. Its distribution to restaurants, hotels, zoos, and related outlets ensures a relatively high level of collection and recycling.

NatureWorks has in place a bottle buy-back program, according to corporate communications and public affairs director Steve Davies. “There are several companies now looking to purchase collected PLA for chemical recycling to recover the feedstock,” he says.

One challenge to separating PLA bottles in the waste stream is that PET recyclers aren’t interested in another step-and cost-in the sortation process, according to NAPCOR.

Added to the greener bottle mix is the November news of Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle, a “hybrid” consisting of up to 30% PET material derived from plants and the remainder from petro-based material. The plant portion is currently made from a blend of sugar cane juice and/or molasses, which is a by-product of producing sugar. It launched in Denmark and will be rolled into North American markets as well.

Offering a smaller carbon footprint then PET bottles, PlantBottles 500-milliliter or 2-liter sizes will be filled with Dasani water, as well as Coke’s lineup of carbonated beverages. Coke’s vision for the new bottles, which can be recycled traditional PET bottles, is to eventually commercialize bottles made of 100% renewable raw materials that are fully recyclable.

If these examples show anything, it’s that brands will continue to flood the market with new plays on greener water packaging.

Isklar water from Norway is produced using all hydroelectric power.

SIDEBAR: Upscale, green and powered by water

Isklar’s PET bottled water debuted in Norwegian supermarkets in early 2009 in strikingly designed PET bottles. Isklar packaging carries the CarbonNeutral logo, which is printed on all of its packaging, shrinks film and labels. The logo’s use is based not on the package or what’s in it, but what’s behind it: water power. Isklar is bottled using 100% hydroelectric power.

Located in the Hardanger fjord, the Isklar bottling plant-which itself is a “recycled” wool mill-produces almost no carbon emissions and boasts a state-of-the-art bottling line that uses about 30% less energy than older equipment. Additionally, heat generated by the production operations is recovered and reused to provide heating elsewhere in the plant. Also, Isklar recycles 99% of its in-plant waste.

When asked byFood & Beverage Packagingabout any plans to enter the U.S. market, Isklar responds, “As a company, Isklar has ambitions to be a global brand and is looking to expand into various markets in 2010.” That certainly leaves the gates open for a water-powered water to flow stateside.