Bottled water surpassed carbonated soft drinks in 2016 to become the largest beverage category by volume in the U.S., according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. Health advocates are cheering, but some environmentalists give pause.
Studies show there are 50 billion water bottles consumed every year — about 30 billion in the U.S. alone — and the negative environmental impact is huge.
Environmentalists point out that plastic water bottles are made of completely recyclable PET plastics, which photodegrade — meaning they break down into smaller fragments over time. Those fragments then absorb toxins that pollute waterways, contaminate soil and sicken animals.
The Earth Policy Institute reported that it requires three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle of water than it does to fill it. Because of the chemical production of plastics, that water is mostly unusable.
And about 80% of these bottles end up in a landfill.
“It’s no secret that consumers today love products that are good for them and the environment," Chris Gretchko, Tetra Pak’s VP of marketing, told Food Dive in an email. "People are looking for a solution and that’s what Tetra Pak cartons—essentially paper-based bottles—offer. These packages are made mainly from renewable materials and people can feel good about purchasing and drinking from them. I think it’s already taking off as you see water in paper-based bottles offered in almost all grocery stores today and many of these new brands already have loyal followings on social media. "
Boxed Water is Better was the first company to market with this alternative to bottled water and it has reported steady growth since its introduction three years ago.
CEO Daryn Kuipers said the company approaches every part of the business—from design to production to shipping—through a lens of sustainability.
“We believe that packaged water should be healthy and pure, and that’s why Boxed Water is 100 percent BPA and phthalate free, free from impurities, or the things you don’t need,” he told Food Dive. “Boxed Water offers a choice that aligns with consumers looking for a better option in packaged water—a more sustainable and more thoughtful option.”
Kuipers sees this less as a trend and more as a shift in consumer values.
“People are looking to live healthier lives and to make better choices everyday – including the impact of the choices they make at checkout,” he said. “This can be as simple as choosing water over soda, and further choosing the more sustainable option of boxed water.”
But Boxed Water isn't alone in the market. Although Rethink Water creators were not as quick to market, founder and CEO of Rethink Brands Matthew Swanson said the genesis of his company's product dates back to a conversation between the firm’s founders in 2009.
“We saw the water category was about to explode, but everything we were reading at the time was about the impact that plastic had. So our thought was, ‘What if we put it into packaging made of cardboard?’” he told Food Dive. “We did some research and found a company was already doing it [Boxed Water], but we thought we could do it better and make it more consumer friendly.”
“These packages are made mainly from renewable materials and people can feel good about purchasing and drinking from them."
Vice president of marketing, Tetra Pak
At the time, beverage distributors and retailers didn’t show much interest in the idea so the company focused on other ideas unrelated to the product.
Fast forward to 2014, where there was a boon in consumer sustainability mindsets, and Rethink Brands realized the time was finally right.
“We started to work on our packaging, and we realized that we needed to make something that wasn’t about being poured, but that could be consumed the way bottle water was,” Swanson said. “We designed an ergonomic package that consumers would want to drink out of, and launched in 2016.”
The company partnered with a Mid-Atlantic beverage distributor and Rethink Water was soon in Wegmans, Target and CVS stores in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.
“The challenge is convincing people that it’s water. People are so trained to drink water out of a plastic bottle, when you put it in a different form they wonder if it’s coconut water or juice or milk. That’s why educating consumers is our top priority,” Swanson said. “Our trail was low but repeat is high, so we know that if we can get the product into people’s hands, they will come back and buy it again. It will take time, but people are starting to understand more about what box water is.”
In 2017, Rethink Water will be launching in Los Angeles and New York, and adding a 1-liter box — twice the size of its current package — to the lineup. Swanson expects to grow from 2,000 stores to 15,000 stores by the end of the year.
Jumping on the craze last year was Caliwater, which offers plant-based water from the prickly pear cactus fruit in specially designed boxed containers.
Matt McKee, founder of the company, said as a functional beverage brand with an exotic ingredient, Caliwater’s goal has been to make clean, refreshing products that are affordable and approachable for everyone.
“As more consumers are reaching for plant-based real food, free of artificial flavors and garbage, the Tetra Pak container has become synonymous with healthy and functional beverages,” McKee told Food Dive. “Our packaging is already sending a message to customers even before they read the packaging.”
Caliwater has experienced tremendous growth in the last year and has recently added retailers like Target and Whole Foods to its distribution channels.
Gretchko said Tetra Pak is always thinking about how people use a product and convenience. For example, its Tetra Top and Tetra Prisma are perfect for beverages like water as it features a sleek shape and similar functionality to a typical bottle, which makes it easy to carry around or fit into a car cup holder.
"Sustainability is at our core," she said. "Our cartons are from paper, a renewable resource sourced from well managed forests where new trees are planted to replace harvested ones. Our products are also designed to have a reduced environmental impact in the manufacturing process through water and energy conservation. We’re also constantly updating our packaging to increase the percentage of renewable materials. A great example of this is one of our lids made out of sugarcane. This and other innovations make packages lighter, further reducing their environmental footprint.”
Roughly 75% of Boxed Water’s carton is renewable. The rest consists of a thin plastic coating and aluminum lining to keep the carton’s shape and ensure freshness of its purified water.
“By packaging our premium water in recyclable cartons that ship flat to our regional fillers, Boxed Water minimizes our carbon footprint and increases efficiency compared to bottled water options,” Kuipers said. “The paper for our cartons is sourced from trees of well-managed forests, where new trees are continuously planted to replace the ones harvested.”
Caliwater originally had to produce its product in plastic bottles. McKee said once it transitioned to boxes, it made a world of difference.
“We had always wanted to be in a Tetra Pak box, and the taste was not as good as it is now that we’re in a box,” he said. “We also had to purchase bottles, caps and labels but now our packaging is all-in-one so we’re cutting down on waste and environmental impact.”
Vivid Water in a Box, based in the UK, is making inroads into retailers across Europe. Its paperboard is made from carbon-neutral wood, from responsibly managed and FSC approved forests that act as “carbon sinks,” absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen.
The beverage industry—not just water—has been introducing boxed options and continues to do so. From coconut water to boxed wine, consumers are looking to make simple, yet more sustainable choices.
“The challenge is convincing people that it’s water. People are so trained to drink water out of a plastic bottle, when you put it in a different form they wonder if it’s coconut water or juice or milk. "
Founder and CEO of Rethink Brands
“We are grateful at how quickly people have responded and want to be a part of a growing community,” Kuipers said. “Our sales team continues to grow nationally and we invest in our partners, all while continuing to do our part in finding better solutions.”
Swanson said the company knows that consumers are willing to buy things that are better for themselves, their families or the environment, as long as they aren’t sacrificing on taste, quality or usage experience.
“The second you create something that’s way different than they are used to consuming, it’s all going to change. For us, we made sure the package we use and the water we have is the best tasting water out there,” he said. “Our package fits in most cup holder and people can bring them to the gym and enjoy a bottle-like experience. We’re not asking for that big a change.”
Everyone agrees consumers all need to start thinking about the planet when they pick products, and water is a product that is purchased all the time.
“Boxed water like those in cartons is one way to make the future brighter and our environment cleaner and more sustainable," Gretchko said. "The biggest hurdle I see is gaining awareness and larger availability. Once people start seeing boxed water available in places where they regularly buy water — awareness will spread.”