In this guide, we compare boxed water that comes in boxes, cartons (like Tetrapak) and paper packaging, to plastic bottles and other types of bottles.
We consider which one might be more sustainable across a range of indicators.
Summary – Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Better?
– What’s The Most Sustainable Option Overall?
From a sustainability perspective, a better option than new packaging of any kind (including boxed/carton water) might be drinking water without any new packaging at all
So, an existing bottle or cup can be used instead of buying a new bottle or carton
If drinking from the tap, the tap water can be filtered or purified
The more times a bottle is re-used, the better it is for sustainability
– What’s The Best Option When Buying A New Bottle Or Carton?
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 might beat them all because of the lower carbon footprint.
Carton/paper water made of composite materials that can’t be recycled effectively may rate poorly for waste management, and recycling and re-use compared to a material like some metals.
Overall, single use anything still does not look better than refillable or reusable bottles over the long term, even if there might be some short term benefits
Not buying new packaging or a new bottle at all when drinking water may be the best option of all
Boxed/carton water has it’s pros and cons (which we outline below in this guide) like any type of packaging or material
– Individual Products Can Vary, & Consumer Behavior Can Vary
Different companies make their products in different ways and from different materials, and consumer behavior can vary
These variables can change the sustainability footprint of water bottles and cartons
For example, specific companies 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).
As another example, different consumers will consume at different rates, and dispose of their waste differently
What Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Exactly?
It’s water that comes in a box, carton or paper type packaging instead of a traditional bottle.
What Materials Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Made Of?
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 and material make-up.
But generally, the packaging material is made predominantly of paper, but is a composite of materials/a multi layer board.
Metal and plastic are common secondary materials in the composite material.
[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 [and] This makes it difficult to recycle so depending on the country these may not be separated for recycling
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
We looked at some examples of some of the most common brands that offer boxed, carton and paper water products, and summarised & paraphrased what each one offers based on information offered on the websites of the companies:
… carton [is made from] 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)
[Despite the above, the carton is] 100% recyclable
[You can read more on transport benefits and recyclability in their site link in the resources list]
Boxed Water Is Better
[Box is made of] 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 Is Better boxes have:
[A] 64% lower carbon footprint
43% less fossil fuel use
1,084% lower impact on our ozone
Compared to aluminum, Boxed Water Is Better boxes have:
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
The above information is from boxedwaterisbetter.com, but grist.org, and citylab.com provide third party information about the product:
… 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
Carton & Co
… majority of the carton is made from FSC-certified, renewable paperboard
… [the] caps are plastic
… cartons are sourced in Europe, and formed, filled and sealed in Australia
[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
Is Boxed/Carton/Paper Water Better For The Environment Than Plastic Bottles, & Other Types Of Bottles?
It depends on several variables, and also how ‘eco friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ is being measured.
In some ways it can be, and some ways it might not be.
Some of the relevant considerations in determining which is more sustainable might include:
– The Materials Used
Bottles might be made mostly of one material, and then use plastic or some other type of material for the lid, or sometimes for the sleeve or lining of the bottle.
You can read about the sustainability of different types of bottles in this guide.
Carton water is generally made of a composite material though, which is a mix of materials.
If we look at the examples above, paper, plastic and aluminum tend to be common materials used in the one composite material.
You can read more in these guides about the sustainability of paper compared to plastic, the sustainability of aluminum compared to plastic, and the sustainability of plastic itself.
There’s sourcing footprints, production footprints, and other footprints for each type of material
– The Company’s Processes & Actual Product
Different companies make their carton/boxed/paper water products in different ways and the finished product is different too.
One company might make their packaging to be easy to recycle, whilst another might not.
One company might have more sustainable practices incorporated into their supply and management chains than others
– The Behavior Of The Consumer
The consumption rate of the consumer, along with how often they re-use a product and how they dispose of waste matters
– Waste Management Systems Available In A City
The availability and effectiveness of the waste management systems in a city or country, and their ability to deal with mixed material packaging and products matters
– Individual Indicators Being Measured
Cartons may come out ahead with some indicators and not with others.
For example, some cartons may never be able to match the recycling rate of some metals.
Some carton water may have issues being recycled because it is a composite board of materials such as paper, aluminum and plastic layers.
But, carton packaging may be lighter and easier to pack and transport than glass, and even plastic.
citylab.com mentions this: [… 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]
It may also rate better according to specific indicators like carbon footprint …
tappwater.co has some interesting data on the carbon footprint of different materials for cans, bottles, jugs, Tetrapak cartons, etc:
… [one study shows that total] greenhouse gas emissions for the manufacture of the packaging and the transportation, [and] all other things being assumed equal, are 265 grams for [a] glass [bottle], 101 grams for [a] plastic jug, and 32 for [a] tetrapak.
If the glass is reused 30 times it gets closer to tetrapak but that excludes the collection and transportation back to where the milk is produced
Again from tappwater.co:
[Medium estimates of the carbon footprint of different products are 488g for 4 x aluminum cans, 323g for [a single use] glass bottle, 250g for a single use plastic bottle, 32g for a tetrapak carton, and 24g for a glass bottle refilled 30 times]