Every minute, one million plastic bottles are sold around the world, most filled with drinking water. Around eight million metric tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans every year, killing fish and birds and impacting our food chain. By 2050, the seas are expected to contain more plastic, pound for pound, than fish. Researchers have even found tiny particles of plastic in bottled water. It is enough to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.
In a perfect world, we would all drink tap water, and all containers would be reusable. But consumers have proven to have an unquenchable thirst for bottled water, and do not always have a reusable bottle on hand. What’s more, even in a country as wealthy as the United States, more than a million people lack access to clean drinking water.
H2O in a can
Luckily, there is an alternative to plastic: aluminium. Aluminium is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without losing its material properties (plastic gets downcycled into other products). Aluminium cans have the highest recycling rate of any beverage container, and reappear on the shelves as new cans in as little as 60 days. Around 75% of aluminium ever produced is still in use today, while 91% of plastic is never recycled.
Moreover, aluminium cans are lightweight and can be efficiently packed for transport. They protect water from light and oxygen, for better taste and a longer shelf life.
Around the world, a number of startups have started offering water - spring or purified, still or sparkling - in recyclable or reusable aluminium cans and bottles. Several of these companies are making the effort to source the water close to their packaging plants, to limit the distance it travels. Some are also giving a percentage of their profits to environmental causes.
One of these is “CanOwater,” launched by three friends in the UK in 2016, after they were shocked to see plastic waste on the shores of a remote island. The company makes chic, minimalist aluminium cans containing spring water from the Austrian Alps - white cans for still water and black cans for sparkling. They come with either a ring pull tab or a resealable top, so you can drink your water in stops and starts, or refill the can later. Customers include the London Zoo (for whom fashion designer Christopher Raeburn designed a limited-edition can with a shark print) and the town of Penzance, in Cornwall, where restaurants and shops are completely eliminating single-use plastics.
In Australia, a company of surfers has created “EnjoyWater,” spring water from an ancient volcano in nearby Victoria, packaged in aluminium cans or refillable bottles with screw tops. The company pledges to donate 1% of its annual sales to nonprofit environmental groups.
Surfers are also behind the aptly named “Surfwater,” a California brand selling electrolyte-enhanced water in aluminium bottles.
In the U.S., where the average consumer drinks some 40 gallons of bottled water a year, sales of bottled water have actually overtaken those of sodas. Reacting to this growing trend, the San Francisco airport, which plans to be zero-waste by 2021, put a ban on plastic water bottles in 2019. Now travelers to and from the airport must bring their own reusable bottles and refill them at a hydration station, or else buy water in an airport-approved glass bottle or aluminium can.
The U.S. is home to a slew of startups offering water packaged in aluminium. Among them, “Open Water,” created in 2014, claims to be the first company to put water in aluminium bottles. The two female co-founders researched plastics, glass, and cartons before choosing aluminium as the most sustainable packaging material. Their purified water comes from an underground aquifer, and a portion of each sale goes to ocean conservation projects.
After playing a defender of the oceans, Aquaman star Jason Momoa walked into the desert and shaved his famous beard off in a video (that quickly went viral), to bring awareness to the problem of plastic bottles and his new water brand, “Mananalu,” packaged in aluminium cans.
Equally as virile, the punk-inflected “Liquid Death” brand is the brainchild of a former Netflix creative director, and features gothic lettering and a melting skull on its aluminium tallboy cans, which house water from the Austrian Alps. The company tagline: “Murder your thirst.”
Exit the freeloader
In 2019, AMI, the parent company of coconut water brand Vita Coco, launched “Ever & Ever,” reverse osmosis water with added electrolytes, sold in an aluminium bottle with a twist cap. Its website waxes lyrical with the following phrase: “Ever & Ever is a love letter to aluminum, the everlasting metal that has been around for approximately forever and will be around for approximately another forever, taking whatever shape humans require of it, silently, selflessly, without ego or waste, unlike plastic, which is a freeloader that’s completely comfortable lying around in an ocean or landfill doing nothing.”
But no matter how noble, the decision to package water in aluminium will make an environmental impact only if enough people correctly dispose of their cans in recycling bins. Engaging consumers in the recycling loop is vital if we are to keep the oceans filled with fish, not plastic.
Christopher Raeburn, in collaboration with CanO Water for #WorldWaterDay, has designed a special edition infinitely recyclable water can for ZSL London Zoo, to replace their plastic water bottles.