Boxed water that comes in boxes, cartons and paper packaging has been around for a while now.
But, in this guide, we look at whether it might be better than plastic (and other options) environmentally, and in other ways.
Summary – Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Better?
Environmentally, a better option than new packaging of any kind (including boxed/carton water) is drinking tap water (which you can filter or purify) from an existing bottle, or from an existing cup
For a new bottle or carton, single use or short use packaging of any kind tends not to beat reusable bottles over longer repeated use lifecycles and timelines. There isn’t as many studies on this, but just as an example, it’s estimated a stainless steel bottle used 500 times or over is better environmentally than a plastic water bottle used once.
And, in terms of carbon footprint, 30 refills of some glass bottles may beat out a single use carton/boxed water
In terms of single use packaging by itself – it appears carton/boxed water does in fact come out ahead favorably compared to most other single use items like plastic bottles, glass bottles, aluminum cans for an indicator like total carbon footprint for example.
It does usually beat out a material like glass as well for transport cost and fuel use due to glass’ weight as a material.
But overall, for single use or short term use items, where carton water sits may depend on how effectively it is recycled. If it can be recycled to a similar level as bottles and cans, it usually beats them all because of the lower carbon footprint.
Specific companies also offer benefits for their boxed water over plastic bottles, such as short distances to transport their water cartons to fill them up, fitting more cartons (flat packed) into the same truck space than plastic can fit, and having the paper portion of their cartons sourced from sustainable and renewable forests and trees (compared to non renewable petrochemicals like plastics are sourced from).
But, single use anything still does not look better than refillable or reusable bottles, and definitely not better than no new bottle or new carton at all.
Overall, boxed/carton water has it’s pros and cons (which we outline below in this guide) like any type of packaging
What Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Exactly?
There’s many different brands that offer boxed water/water that comes in cartons (similar to milk). Each one might offer a slightly different product with slightly different packaging.
But generally, it is water that comes in packaging that contains paper, instead of the common plastic water bottle.
More specifically, it tends to be a composite of materials/a multi layer board.
[A general makeup of Tetrapak and other brands of carton type packaging, might be paper (70%), aluminium and various plastics and plastic layers. There can be up to 12 or even 16 layers that make up one board]. This makes it difficult to recycle so depending on the country these may not be separated for recycling (tappwater.co)
Beveragedaily.com has a good cross section picture of a water carton showing the various layers – follow the resource link in the resource list to see it.
Examples Of Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Products
- … carton is 100% recyclable, 54% paper (made from trees that are responsibly harvested and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council), 28% plants based plastic (plastic in the shoulder and cap of the JUST carton is made mostly from sugarcane), 3% aluminum + 15% protective plastic film (thin layer of aluminum foil to protect water from potential contamination. Both the aluminum and paper are shielded by a layer of BPA-free plastic film to protect the integrity of the bottle)
– justwater.com (read more on transport benefits and recyclability in their site link in the resources list)
Boxed Water Is Better
74% paper, 20% plastic, 6% aluminum
Roughly three-quarters of each [box] is made of paper, fully recyclable and free of BPAs and phthalates. … Paper comes from well-managed forests which are continually being replanted to replace harvested trees, helping offset [the] carbon footprint …
As a single use option compared to plastic bottles, Boxed Water:
64% lower carbon footprint
43% less fossil fuel use
1,084% lower impact on our ozone
Compared to aluminum:
- 50% lower impact on ozone depletion & smog emissions
- 33% lower impact on acidification due to deforestation
- Due to smelting 120 million tons of bauxite waste is produced annually
- 76% of the carton is paper [made from certified, sustainably managed forests], with the rest being layers of polyethylene plastic, and aluminum
- … water is purified through reverse osmosis and ultraviolet filtration
- For one truck’s worth of bottled water, Boxed Water can deliver 26 trucks’ worth of cartoned water
– grist.org, and citylab.com
Carton & Co
- … cartons are sourced in Europe, and formed, filled and sealed in Australia
- … majority of the carton is made from FSC-certified, renewable paperboard
- [water is mains water that is purified to] remove the ‘undesirables’ like iron, salts and fluoride.
- Triple filters of carbon, reverse osmosis and UV are used in multi-stage process
- Caps are plastic
Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Better For The Environment Than Plastic Bottles, & Other Bottles?
It appears that in the production stage, and with the overall carbon footprint, it might be better than plastic bottles and other types of single use bottles.
In transport and delivery, carton water looks like it beats glass, which is a heavier material and a more costly material to transport, that can also use more fuel. Furthermore, [trucks taking cartons to filling plants can generally fit more boxes of water in the same space as even plastic, to the ratio of 26 trucks to 1, because the boxes are packed flat] (citylab.com)
Carton water may have issues being recycled because it is a composite board of materials such as paper, aluminum and plastic layers.
So, in waste management, carton water may be as bad as, and potentially worse than pure plastic, glass , aluminum and other materials. It may also contribute to waste in landfill and waste pollution if not recycled effectively.
But, it depends on the effectiveness of the waste management systems in a city or country, and their ability to deal with mixed material packaging and products
Boxed/carton/paper water appears not to to be better than refillable bottles and reusable bottles, that are used or refilled 30 times or more
Using a new box or carton of water is not as good environmentally as using an existing bottle or cup to drink your water from a tap or a source that doesn’t require packaging
Something else to consider is that paper is made from trees, which are renewable. However, plastic is made from petrochemicals like crude oil and natural gas, which aren’t renewable. Glass and aluminum are both 100% recyclable, and can be recycled infinitely.
Tappwater.co has an interesting post where they outline the carbon footprint, recycling, end of life waste and transportation, of glass vs plastic vs aluminum vs carton Tetrapak. The results were:
Carbon footprint – carton came out ahead of everything except a glass bottle that had been re-filled/reused 30 times
Recycling – no data available, but paper can be re-used 4 to 5 times
Transportation – it’s assumed carton is better than glass which is heavier than other materials, which leads to more fuel use and higher transport costs
Waste management – might have a medium impact on wildlife and nature, and might have a decomposition residue of some micro plastics