One million plastic bottles are sold around the world each minute. Most are used for bottled water, and most end up in the trash. As demand for bottled water grows–particularly in China–so does the bottle problem. By 2021, humans will use an estimated half a trillion bottles plastic bottles a year.
Evian, the France-based mineral water brand, is part of the problem, though now it’s also working on a plan to address the challenge–but keep selling bottled water–through a new approach: By 2025, the company plans to become “circular,” using materials in a closed loop. It will work to increase dismal consumer recycling rates, and partner with a nonprofit that works on collecting ocean plastic. In a move that will likely have a more direct impact, all Evian bottles will also be made from 100% recycled plastic. On average, other bottled water companies use only around 6% to 7% recycled plastic today.
The shift hinges on new technology. The traditional process for recycling a plastic bottle–washing it, shredding it into tiny pieces, and melting it into resin–doesn’t work particularly well. New plastic made from the material is lower quality, and cloudy rather than clear. Bottled water companies have been reluctant to use it; it’s more likely that a recycled bottle will be made into fiber and used in a sweatshirt or pair of shoes.
Evian partnered with a Montreal-based startup called Loop Industries that recycles differently. “We actually don’t even consider ourselves recyclers,” says Daniel Solomita, founder and CEO of Loop Industries, which calls its product “sustainably produced resin.” Using a low-energy process with minimal heat and pressure, and a proprietary catalyst, the company “depolymerizes” waste plastic, turning it into the same base materials that are used in making virgin plastic.
Solomita explains the technology by thinking of plastic like a cake that can be magically broken down into its component ingredients. You can then reuse those ingredients for whatever you want, or even re-bake them into a new, equally good cake. “You take that chocolate cake and break it down into its individual ingredients–you take the milk, the eggs, the flour, and the chocolate, and you purify every one of those ingredients,” he says. “You take the egg and put it back in its shell. And then you build a brand-new cake out of it.”
The end result is recycled plastic that performs and looks exactly like virgin plastic, but avoids the need for oil and gas. The recycling process works not only on water bottles, but on any plastic material, including, for example, old polyester carpet that typically would have no value. A bottle made through the process can also be recycled over and over again, using the same process, without degrading in quality. Though only a small fraction of plastic bottles are recycled today, if recycling rates increased to 100%, the plastic could truly be used in a closed loop.
For Evian, which has partnered with designers like Christian Lacroix and Alexander Wang to make limited-edition bottles for its luxury mineral water in the past, the quality was a fit for its brand. The process also fits with its sustainability goals. The company’s bottling plant in France is carbon neutral and powered by renewable energy. A shift to rail transportation, rather than trucks, helped decrease emissions, and the company works with a partner to plant trees to offset remaining emissions. Its plastic bottles are, on average, already made with 25% recycled material. Moving to 100% recycled plastic bottles, and working with the circular economy-focused nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is the next step. “We think that this is the way that we should do business,” says Antoine Portmann, general manager at Danone Waters North America, Evian’s parent company.
Of course, it doesn’t solve some of the fundamental issues with the industry: The company still ships water thousands of miles to consumers who could choose to drink local tap water from reusable bottles. Most consumers still don’t recycle, and the growing number of trashed bottles may become increasingly difficult to deal with. But 100% recycled plastic bottles are a “tremendous step forward,” says Peter Gleick, a scientist and president emeritus at the nonprofit Pacific Insitute, who wrote a book on the industry called Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.
“One could argue there shouldn’t be a bottled water industry, but that’s unrealistic,” he says. “A step forward like this is I think a step in the right direction, and I think should be encouraged. We should be pushing all the bottled water companies to aggressively reduce their energy and water and waste footprints.”