Back in March, we gave bottled water a pretty hard time—enough to even catch the ire of the International Bottled Water Association, who accused us of ‘mis-reporting’ their greenwashed pro-bottled water film. They said their piece, but the facts remain: billions of plastic bottles are thrown away each year while less than 30% are recycled; shipping water needlessly wastes energy and contributes to climate change; bottled water is no safer than tap water in the United States; tap water actually outperforms bottled water in taste tests; and—perhaps most galling of all, almost a quarter of bottled water is just tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi—it’s just thousands of times more expensive.
So I was interested when a link to a new product floated across my desk: boxed water, labeled simply enough “Boxed Water Is Better.” No plastic, easily recyclable, made from materials largely produced from a ‘renewable’ resource. They’ve even pledged to donate 20% of their profits to water and reforestation organizations. Sounds pretty good, right?
Well, maybe. The question is: better than what, exactly? Despite their optimistic rhetoric, many of the fundamental flaws of bottled water really have less to do with the bottle, and more to do with the idea of packaging, shipping, and selling something we can get for free in our homes. While paperboard isn’t made from petroleum, it still takes energy (usually from coal and oil) to package, ship, and dispose of the box—thousands of times more than just turning on the tap. And only about 50% of states in the U.S. have access to carton recycling, meaning many (if not most) of those boxes will end up in landfills. Based on that, boxed water only looks better than one thing: bottled water. Which isn’t a high bar to clear.
While I admire their pluck and positive intentions—20% of profits is an admirable benchmark, even for a company not yet turning a profit—I have to wonder if this really is, as they claim, ‘a step in the right direction.’ Boxed Water Is Better describe themselves as an “ever growing and adapting project…committed to constantly exploring new technology to lessen the impact of the portable water market.” So maybe down the road they’ll invent a solution that’s better than just ‘less bad’. But as Nau’s Grant For Change gets underway, it’s interesting to ponder the limits of innovation and design in solving problems of manufactured demand. Perhaps sometimes, the best solution isn’t to change the package, but to change ourselves.
So what do you think about Boxed Water? Step in the right direction? Or, as the Seven Sins of Greenwashing would put it, just a ‘lesser evil?’