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Alaska Airlines Eliminates Plastic Water Bottles: But is alternative better?

January 4, 2022

Today's guest blog is courtesy of NAPCOR, the National Association for PET Container Resources. The original post can be read here.

Earlier this month, Alaska Airlines eliminated the use of all plastic water bottles onboard its aircrafts, opting instead to offer Boxed Water is Better – water in a box, made from multiple layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. While switching to a beverage container that’s 92% plant-based may seem like an environmentally friendly alternative, a closer look reveals that this latest action to shift materials in an effort to responsibly reduce waste does not actually solve the problem. Understanding why offers a powerful opportunity to help guide other businesses, corporations, industries and individuals on the right path as they evolve their sustainability initiatives.

As an organization dedicated to reducing carbon emissions, the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) plays a leading role in awareness and education. One of the greatest and most persistent challenges we encounter in our mission is the misconception that all plastics are equally bad for the environment. But PET (polyethylene terephthalate)—which accounts for 70% of bottled water packaging, as well as for carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and dilutable drinks—is significantly different, and often times better for the planet than other plastics, and other forms of beverage packaging.

The Facts

PET is 100% recyclable, infinitely, with one of the lowest carbon footprints for container packaging. PET containers can be reprocessed for reuse in millions of products across a number of industries, including everything from food and beverage packaging to apparel and floor coverings. PET is also the world’s most commonly recycled plastic, with more than 1.8 billion pounds used in the U.S. and Canada every year.

On the other hand, carton packaging like that used by the Boxed Water is Better brand can very rarely be recycled because its multi-layer construction requires specialized recycling equipment. Many cities do not accept them for recycling because of these challenges. As a result, only 26% of cartons are recycled globally, compared to 54% of PET bottles. Moreover, when you consider the components of this packaging—paper, plastic and aluminum—the recycling story gets even grimmer. Individually, the materials could take on new life through recycling, but because they are layered together, they end up “dying” in landfills.

Beyond a PET water bottle’s significantly greater likelihood of being recycled, it has a smaller environmental footprint than the manufacturing of a beverage carton. A 2021 Life Cycle Assessment conducted by the product sustainability consulting firm Trayak found that compared to the average beverage carton, aluminum can and glass bottle, production of an average PET water bottle consumes fewer fossil fuels and water and emits fewer greenhouse gases. How do the numbers stack up? Cartons weigh nearly three times more than the average PET bottle (8.3 grams vs 21.8 grams). PET has two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions as that produced by cartons, and in terms of water use, PET uses one-third the amount of water used in carton packaging production.

Certainly, our society is making great strides in reducing carbon emissions, adopting more sustainable practices and increasing accessibility to and awareness of the most eco-responsible options. However, environmental challenges remain steep. The solution lies in individuals doing their part to make responsible choices and recycle. This includes influential companies such as Alaska Airlines moving the needle by embracing impactful actions based on fully informed decisions instead of a knee-jerk response based on assumptions and emotions. Our planet is counting on everyone making the very best choices.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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