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Plastic water bottles - what are the alternatives for cafes?

Plastic water bottles are a big litter item. Despite being recyclable, most end up in rubbish dumps or in the environment, where they persist and cause untold damage to our marine environment and wildlife.

And with one million plastic bottles sold every minute globally, we understand why many businesses, like you, are looking for more sustainable options.

To be clear, we don't think there is a need for disposable bottles at all in Australia. After all, Australia has some of the best tap water in the world! The best thing we can recommend is selling reusable water bottles and offering refills to your customers. And for table water, glasses or a glass bottle that can be refilled with an on-tap water system is a great option. 

However, we understand that disposable options are still a way of life. Many cafes switch to glass or aluminium options, but these are not as plastic-free as they seem. 

This guide is to help you find your best alternative options, starting with the most problematic alternatives and concluding with the most sustainable.

Carton and boxed water

Carton or boxed water is a commonly found item in many cafes and restaurants, it's prevalence is linked to the effective ‘green’ marketing associated with the product. These products lead consumers and business owners to believe that boxed water is a better choice to its plastic counterpart. 

While boxed water does have lower transportation costs (which is an environmental consideration), let us tell you why we think it's not the best option

TetraPak-Veolia Recycling Infograph

● Boxed water is a composite material made of paper, plastic, aluminium and sometimes even other materials. 

● Because of this, it is a challenge to recycle. The materials need to be separated out which often makes it uneconomical to recycle. 

● These products usually have a plastic lid.

Bioplastic / PLA bottles 

Where reusable is not an option, we often recommend 100% compostable products as an alternative, (including compostable bioplastic/PLA if a more sustainable alternative is not available). 

However, in the case of water bottles, just because the bottle has components of PLA it does not mean it is 100% compostable or a good alternative to plastic bottles

Let us tell you why:

● If littered, it will act like plastic. PLA is only compostable in a commercial facility.

● These bottles often have a plastic lid and neck ring that is not compostable.

● While it is accepted in the kerbside compost bin in SA, this is not the case everywhere.

● Compostable bioplastic/PLA is not recyclable in kerbside recycling or through the container deposit scheme. If it ends up there it will contaminate recycling streams.

Aluminium cans 

Aluminium cans are becoming increasingly popular, with major manufacturers looking to offer it as an alternative to plastic.

However, it's not as plastic free as it seems - what most people don’t realise is that aluminium cans have an inner plastic (epoxy) lining to ensure the can doesn’t corrode, plus an outer epoxy coating to protect the paint. This effectively entombs the aluminium and, as with all plastic, if it is littered it persists for hundreds of years, jeopardising our marine environment!

The good thing about aluminium cans is that they can be recycled indefinitely, unlike plastic bottles where the quality of the recycled materials degrade over time. For these reasons, we prefer cans be used in a closed-loop situation, where all cans will be captured for recycling.

Glass bottles

When it comes to plastic-free options for selling water, glass is the best alternative. It is sustainable, inert and will not cause damage to the marine environment if it escapes into our oceans. 

Just be aware that many water bottles, even glass, have hidden plastics. One brand may carry a variety of options, so it is important to check. This picture shows five bottles and two have plastic sealing rings on the lid.

When looking for glass options, here is how to avoid these hidden plastics and choose better options:

Avoid bottles with a plastic lid or plastic sealing ring.

Instead look for a metal twist lid (like a beer bottle), or a metal screw lid with a metal sealing ring.

Avoid bottles that are shrink wrapped in plastic or fully wrapped in plastic stickers.

Instead look for bottles that are not fully wrapped, with (preferably) paper labelling that can easily be removed during recycling.

While we endorse glass as the best plastic-free option, the downside is that glass is heavier to transport, and can have a higher carbon footprint through its lifetime than other options. If you’re considering glass, here are some additional questions to ask: 

● How far is the transportation to get it to you? Importing from overseas carries a huge environmental footprint!

● Is there a local business you can support?

Reusable bottles

Download our free poster

The best thing we can recommend is selling reusable water bottles and offering refills to your customers. After all, Australia has some of the best tap water in the world! 

You can sell branded reusable water bottles and even have them pre-filled in the fridge, ready to go.

Not only is this the best environmental choice but also great marketing - branded drink bottles = free advertising, showing everyone that your business is a sustainable choice.


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