Environmentalists usually hate disposable water bottles and with good reason: More than 30 billion end up in landfills each year, some float out to litter the ocean, and millions of barrels of oil are used just to make the plastic. Now a new Kickstarter project claims to introduce a greener version of the standard disposable bottle. But is it possible to actually claim to have a green water bottle, when people can just turn on the tap?
The new bottle, called Treeson is made from plant-based plastic. Peel away the recycled paper label, and there’s a mailing label underneath. The whole bottle easily flattens so it can be mailed back to the company to be re-used as fuel in a waste-to-energy plant. For every bottle purchased, the company also plants a tree, which customers can track through a smartphone app.
Is this just greenwashing? To begin with, shipping water isn’t exactly good for the environment either. In the industry, nearly as much energy is used in transportation as the oil used to make the bottles. Treeson plans to limit transportation somewhat by building treatment plants within 500 miles of major cities. It also claims that many people don’t have the option to drink clean local water.
"The reality in places like the Bay Area is very different than the reality of the majority of the United States," says Carlton Solle, Treeson’s founder. "Right now, I’m in Houston, Texas, and I cannot drink the water out of the tap. If you drive four hours up the road to Dallas and you stick a match at the tap, it might actually catch fire."
That doesn’t mean bottled water is always necessarily safer, since it’s actually less regulated than what comes out of the tap. Treeson says that it's using highly filtered, spring water. And it's inarguable that if you were in certain parts of West Virginia lately, you were definitely drinking from a bottle after a major chemical spill polluted waterways there.
Even if there are cases when drinking bottled water makes sense for health reasons, that doesn’t mean mailing back the bottle is an improvement over typical recycling or that people will make the effort. But Treeson argues that some communities don’t have easy access to recycling, and that bottles can "hitch a ride" with postal trucks, which typically have empty space on the return trip after delivering mail. Eventually he wants to provide bulk collection at stores as well.
"How long has recycling been around—30, 40 years?" Solle asks. "And only 20% of the stuff is getting recycled? That doesn’t seem to be working that well. So I think it’s time for some new alternatives." By making it clear that bottles are being turned into energy, he hopes to give them new value for people who might have seen them as trash.
He also hopes to eventually use the same process for other types of bottled drinks. "We're starting with bottled water because of all of the attention. But there's all the ready-to-drink tea, the sodas, and nobody ever talks about that. The real solution begins to address all of that, and packaging as a whole."
While the goals are laudable, in the end, it's not fully clear that the system would dramatically improve on the environmental performance of regular bottles. The company doesn't claim to have done any professional lifecycle analysis comparing their solution to the industry standard. Some studies, for example, have shown that corn-based plastic actually uses more energy than regular plastic because of agricultural requirements.
Still, there's one thing that Solle and environmentalists can definitely agree on: It would be best if water sources return to their natural state, so everyone can have the option of drinking clean local water. The company hopes that their aggressive program of planting trees will be one step in helping restore those water sources.
"If we don’t have all of the pollution, I’ve just made my product obsolete," Solle says. "And that’s actually why we’re doing the things we’re doing."