The Beverage Industry Rethinks Single-Serve

Water packaging edges toward sustainability
Photograph courtesy of Boxed Water

Single-serve beverages may rule the water category, but in recent years, the focus on plastic waste has sharpened. This has caused the larger companies to change their packaging.

“There’s been a massive amount of light-weighting in the bottle and the cap so consumers might even be finding the bottles more difficult to use because they collapse easier and they’re more difficult to close,” says Gary Hemphill, managing director of research for Beverage Marketing Corp., New York City. However, overall, he says, using less plastic is a win-win: It saves money on plastic, is an environmentally sound strategy and boosts the company’s image, especially with younger consumers.

Sustainability got a bit of a pass early in the pandemic, says Shelley Balanko, SVP of business development for The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash., as consumers wanted the security of single-serve bottles, but consumers are continuing to drive changes in packaging. “Sustainability has changed from something that’s nice to have to a purchase criteria. Consumers are expecting companies to be responsible, truly responsible to their end consumer,” she says.

Ben Gott founded Boxed Water in Grand Rapids, Mich., due to his concerns about plastic waste. The product, which is available in four sizes—250 mL, 330 mL, 500 mL and 1 liter—come in aseptic cartons made from 92% plant-based materials. There’s a thin layer of plastic to line the cartons and keep them from leaking—one-twelfth of what goes into a plastic bottle, and it doesn’t need to be formed or molded. "A lot of energy is required for those processes,” says Chief Marketing Officer Rob Koenen.

Boxed Water is in retailers across the country and is sold online too, with sales evenly split between the two. It’s also doing well in noncommercial foodservice and locations such as gyms “since people who care about their body tend to care about the planet,” Koenen says.

The pandemic has boosted sales of Boxed Water. “There’s been a heightened reality of plastic during the pandemic so more people are talking about plastic pollution,” Koenen says. And the people who like it are in general, younger (ages 34 to 45).

But he’s not kidding himself. “Boxed water is better than plastic, but refillable is best. But until there’s not 69 billion plastic bottles being made, we’re the best alternative," he says, adding that Boxed water bottles are refillable.

Sol Water also launched this fall, in cans, rather than plastic because they’re recyclable, says founder Calvin Engle. On top of that, he donates 5 cents to the Amazon for every can sold, which resonates with the type of consumers who drink this electrolyte water, he says, since people interested in their own health tend to be interested in the planet’s.

Nestle Waters North America (NWNA) is developing packaging for the future to help reach a circular economy and shape a waste-free future. It’s already increased its use of recycled plastic and is exploring new materials for alternative packaging solutions.

NWNA is committed to using 50% recycled PET (rPET) by 2025, and the company has steadily made progress toward that. Now, five of NWNA’s six regional spring water brands offer bottles made with recycled plastic, and four of these offer bottles made with 100% rPET.

And Coca-Cola, whose water brands include Dasani, is committed to making 100% of its packaging recyclable globally by 2025, and to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030​.

And for the Dasani brand, the company is about to launch caps made from recycled high-density polyethylene plastic. During a pilot, the company also tested a monolayer label with 40% less plastic than existing labels. These new labels separate better in the recycling stream, which means bottles can be more easily recycled.

Bottles made with less plastic are a boon to beverage companies as well as the environment, says David Henkes, advisory group senior principal with Technomic, Chicago, because they’re lighter to ship. He expects to see packaging lightening up even more, and expects to see more water in cans, “but bottles are resealable, which is often how people consume it, whereas a can is mostly consumed at one time,” he says.

“I think innovations like Boxed Water are, over time, what consumers are going to be looking for,” he says. “It just might take a bit of a change in consumer mindset.”


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