Environmental concerns over PET packaging have hit the bottled water market, but technological advances in biodegradable plastics have given bottled water companies cause for optimism. Annette Farr reports.

Bottled water has suffered a decline in sales, in part due to concerns that the most commonly used pack - the PET plastic bottle - is not environmentally friendly.

Research specialist Canadean says the situation is most marked in the US where it is forecasting annual growth of below 1% for the next five years as the impact of tap water campaigns and bottled water bans by public institutions is felt. This is a significant deceleration from the double-digit rates seen from 2000 to 2008 which, Canadean suggests, will have a knock-on effect for the PET plastics industry.

"In the decade up to 2008, the US bottled water market accounted for 20% of the growth in global PET demand in beverages, " says Emily Neill, business development director at Canadean. "This growth driver has been switched off."

However, there have been some recent exciting developments by the packaging industry which could lead to a reversal of fortunes. The most high profile of these is the Eco-Fina bottle, which has been adopted by PepsiCo for its best-selling purified water brand, Aquafina, in the US.

Weighing in at just under 10.9g, the 500ml pack uses 50% less plastic, saving an estimated 75m pounds of plastic a year. Modifications were made at Aquafina's purification centres to accommodate the new package so that the bottles can be blown and filled on site.

"Consumer research confirms that we achieved our desired objective, which was a 'sustainable design trifecta' - a bottle that looks better, functions better and is better for the environment," says Robert Le Bras-Brown, vice president of packaging innovation and development at PepsiCo. "The new design leverages structural engineering which allows the Eco-Fina Bottle to support 50 times its weight in water while offering consumers a contemporary, attractive package that meets their needs."

The 'natural' plastic bottle has also generated a lot of interest. NatureWorks of Minneapolis, Minnesota, reports that from early 2007 through to the end of 2008, significant strides were made towards the adoption of bottles made from its biopolymer Ingeo, a natural plastic derived from 100% annually renewable resources.

"In late 2006, NatureWorks pledged to responsibly and transparently introduce Ingeo natural plastic water, dairy, juice, and other bottles into the market," says Marc Verbruggen, NatureWorks president and CEO. "Our twin goals were to work with brand owners on carefully phased bottle introductions and on a parallel track to develop a deeper environmental and technical understanding of end-of-life scenarios for bottles made from renewable resources rather than oil."

Last year, following a 2m-bottle, five-month long pilot project, Primo Water Corporation of Winston Salem, North Carolina, introduced its new line of bottled water in Ingeo single-serve bottles. Primo Water is the first product bottled in renewable plastic to be sold nationally.

The bioplastic is being received favourably worldwide, according to NatureWorks. In New Zealand, Good Water completed a successful pilot study of collecting and recycling Ingeo-based bottles, and subsequently introduced a bottled water line packaged in Ingeo plastic. And in April 2008, following several months of extensive tests, Italian firm Fonti di Vinadio began bottling Sant'Anna mineral water in Ingeo bioplastic packaging.

Elsewhere, Planet Green Bottle of Vancouver, Canada and UK-based Wells Plastics have jointly developed an additive which causes a PET bottle to oxo-biodegrade.

Patrick Rooney, co-founder and director of corporate development for Planet Green, explains: "The Planet Green concept is to facilitate a brand owner to switch from a PET plastic bottle designed to last forever and to go 'Revertable'. We estimate that a PET plastic bottle infused with our Reverte additive will oxo-biodegrade in a 10 to 20-year timeframe, primarily because we programme the molecular breakdown of the plastic over a long enough time to ensure proper shelf life.

"We are developing a country-by-country strategic partnership plan and will seek out well-capitalised local leaders in the bottling segment in geographic regions globally to be our local partners."

Strong growth for such biodegradable plastic initiatives is forecast by Cleveland-based research firm The Freedonia Group. According to its Green Packaging report, US demand for green packaging - comprised of recycled, biodegradable and reusable materials - is projected to increase by 3.4% annually to US$43.9bn in 2013, using 59bn pounds of material. The fastest gains, however, are anticipated in plastic recycling content and biodegradable plastic packaging, forecast to climb by nearly 13% per year through to 2013. Driving the growth will be increased price competitiveness with conventional resins, rapidly expanding capacity and lower pricing volatility than petroleum-based plastic packaging materials.

Carton manufacturers are also actively working on environmentally-friendly formats. Tetra Pak has developed a carton which it regards as the greenest solution for packaged water; the Tetra Prisma Aseptic is made from over 60% renewable materials. Plant It Water is one of the first companies in the US to use this pack format.

"By putting our spring water in a Tetra Pak carton, we offer a greener alternative without compromising portability, convenience and delicious taste," says Plant It Water CEO Jane Goldberg. The company's commitment to the environment cause includes partnership with Trees for the Future, an organisation which has planted over 50m trees worldwide. For every carton of water sold, a tree is planted.

Bag-in-box packaging has also received a green light says manufacturer Rapak. Europe's largest supplier of bag-in-box systems, Rapak recently commissioned UK-based packaging consultancy Pira to undertake an independent life cycle assessment (LCA) of bag-in-box packaging. LCA is a technique used to quantify the environmental impact of products during their entire life cycle, from raw material extraction, manufacture, transport and usage through to waste processing or disposal. The assessment has, according to Rapak, confirmed that the format has excellent environmental credentials.