Boxed In


Passing through an airport a few weeks ago, and having just had a water bottle confiscated at the security checkpoint (yes, I’m sorry to say I was one of those people who forgot all about the bottle in my carry-on and got pulled out of line), I stopped at a little coffee kiosk along the concourse to buy a replacement. “I can’t sell you a bottle, but I can sell you a box,” the woman behind the counter said, and proceeded to hand me a pint-sized white milk carton with the slogan “Boxed Water Is Better.”

This, combined with the increasing bans on single-use plastic items, got me thinking. Is a box better than a bottle? This article about the brand—“Boxed Water Is Better” is actually the brand name—provides some information.  

Worldwide, people spend a staggering $144 billion a year on bottled water. In places where there is no safe source of drinking water, the bottled stuff might be essential, but for many of us, it’s become a convenience or a trend.

This particular brand, the article reports, touts its paper container as completely recyclable (including the plastic cap on the side) and says that 76% of the paper used in the carton comes from sustainably managed forests. The company sends the cartons to the filling plant empty and flat; at the plant, the cartons are un-flattened and filled with water that has been purified using reverse osmosis and ultraviolet filtration. The 35,000 boxes that arrived flat on a single truck depart on 26 trucks when filled, but now they have less distance to travel—and they pack more efficiently than do round plastic bottles.

True, the paper is coated with wax, as one of my fellow travelers at the airport pointed out, curiously examining the box, and so it will take a little longer to decompose in a landfill. (The article, published in 2015, notes that the product was just starting to be sold at Costco, Whole Foods, Kroger’s, and other outlets in 22 states, but neither of us had run across it before.) Still, the paper carton won’t last as long as plastic, which is virtually forever.

We’ve talked many times before about the amount of plastic in the oceans and other waterways, and about the bans on plastic bags and other single-use plastic items like straws and utensils that are gaining momentum around the world. In the great scheme of things, do you think that Boxed Water and similar ecofriendly products will make a difference? What other changes would you suggest? SW_bug_web

  • Tamara T.

    So happy that people are thinking! This sounds like a good, single use alternative. The metal or ceramic reusable bottles are still likely better for re-use (I haven’t done the Life Cycle Analysis). However – at least until they disappear, the more times you use a plastic bottle – that you already have – the less plastic is used and wasted into our environment. I would absolutely try the boxes. Also – even with the wax they are probably compostable!!

  • John Dougherty.

    I use a refillable water bottle when ever i travel. i will check out this container when i see it. Skeptical about the net energy cost to recycle.

  • Henry Coppola.

    I’ve seen the boxed water around for a while now in the DC area, I would be more exited about it if the boxes didn’t have plastic lids and were opened like an old school milk carton. One of the most common items found during our volunteer park and stream cleanups are water bottle caps…

  • Robert Kling.

    Agree with Henry CoCoppola re. old school milk carton open sans plastic cap. …and wax coated or paraffin?

  • Diane Rubin.

    To start, the plastic “waste” confiscated at TSA checkpoints is ridiculous; only to have people replace the bottles on the other side. But that argument is for another day and place.

    I like the effort to reduce plastic bottles, and agree with Henry and Robert above about the plastic caps, which are also found in the digestive tracts of wildlife unfortunately. It would be great to have water stations, set up and accessed like secure ATMs, where, for a fee less than a bottle of water, people could refill a reusable container or recycle/deposit a plastic bottle, and get a refill with something more environmentally friendly. Incentives and information could also be integrated into this type of operation. The maintenance would be significant but would provide employment.

  • Dovetail Inc. has a series of life-cycle analyses reports on its website, comparing paper and wood products with alternatives (plastic, concrete, etc.).

  • David S..

    And then there is the problem with all the beverage holders in cars, trucks, buses, planes, etc. that are designed to hold round containers, not square or rectangular containers…

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    I have a Camelbak 27 oz. water bottle with an integral straw for easy sipping that I’ve been using for about 8 years now. That probably is in the range of 1200-1500 refills. It’s BPA free plastic. I can’t understand why people are so thoughtless to use single use water bottles for convenience, but then there’s a lot that baffles me regarding human behavior. Understandably, security in these times we’re living in is important. TSA checkpoints should have a receptacle to empty water bottles because who knows what liquid is inside, and there should be some place to refill them on the boarding side. Meanwhile, I’ll keep wearing polypro base layers for warmth & wicking (& no itching) made from recycled bottles, and spend that $$$ I save from not buying single use water bottles on my ski pass.
    While I’m on my “water bottle soapbox”, I’d like to add that portable, simple water purification systems would be preferable to shipping bottled water for disaster relief. They’re easy to use, and it gives disaster victims something to be proactive about, rather than just receiving aid. That usually is a boost to morale when dealing with an overwhelmingly challenging situation.

  • Our entire family uses stainless steel bottles. I’ve had mine for over 10 years, and fill it up a minimum of 2X per day. That’s over 7,300 16 oz. plastic bottles not used, and $4,453 saved (the average cost of a gallon of bottled water is approximately $1.22). The kiddes (ages 10 & 11) have had one since they were each a year old. My spouse has his own bottle, too, and his own carry-all to carry it in (as well as his keys, wallet, notebook, phone, etc.). We always dump out our bottles into vegetation before entering an airport. After going through security we refill from water fountains. Of course, if one is in a location that doesn’t have safe drinking water, this routine wouldn’t work. However, there are water bottles that have built-in filters, though, and would be a better option.
    Changing topics, I agree with J.McClelland: portable, simple, water purification systems would be vastly preferable to sending along thousands of 16 oz. plastic bottles to disaster areas. Providing larger, more durable, refillable, containers of water – perhaps 3-5 gallons – along with the purification systems is also preferable, as it takes a lot of 16 oz bottles to provide enough water to cook/bathe/wash clothes with.

    • Whoops!! I made a math mistake… the savings would be approximately $1,113. My apologies for any confusion.

  • Bill Sedlak.

    The concept of using a paper/cardboard container for water is interesting, but possibly only shifts the problem from plastic to paper. I would be concerned that the protective coating on the inside of the container could impact the ability to recycle the paper/cardboard material. Internationally, China has reduced their acceptance of recyclable materials and required inspections to remove “contaminated” items, such as paper with imbedded plastics or vice versa. I am still frustrated over the ban on straws, based on the outbreaks of illnesses from products and unsanitary conditions in restaurants and fast food joints. I continue to see the servers hand customers the drink cups by the rim. Single use bottles (with caps) at least avoid human contamination of the drinking surfaces. Stainless steel water bottles are a reasonable alternative, but are often inconvenient. For example, carrying these bottles at home is pretty straight forward. However, on vacation, how many times have we gone off and left our bottle of water (or other drink) on a bus or plane, or a hotel room? And carrying the stainless bottles is a pain when you have your hands full going through the airport security. The bottles don’t compress and take up a bunch of space in your carry-on. My personal favorite is the reusable plastic cups (with reusable straws) that some food places offer, with a discount for future refills. I use these frequently, and since I work in the field a fair amount of the time I just keep one in my vehicles. I have one that is probably 10 years old and is still honored for refills by the stores.
    Providing drinking water to areas in need should probably be a combination of (larger) bottles and filters. I have seen and heard from relief workers about a number of countries where the local population does not have an understanding of basic sanitation. For people whose “toilet” is within short distance to the water supply, the water supply is questionable, or may contain more contaminants than the typical filters can easily remove. Then there is training…
    A doctor from the World Health Organization once told me that while we (Americans) are worrying about things that could kill us if we drank 1 million gallons, where he came from he had a farmer come and ask him “my cow drank from the well and died. what should I do?
    As we agreed, there is no silver bullet or single cure for our problems. However, we need to keep working on solving problems and trying to minimize the unintentional consequences.


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