Comparative study of the environmental
impact of water or beverage containers


Italy is one of the countries with the highest consumption of bottled mineral water in the world, with an annual per capita average of 200 liters, against a European average of 118 (Ambrosetti, 2021).

A constantly growing trend that sees plastic as the most widespread solution, despite the well-known environmental contraindications deriving from its production, transport and disposal. (Culligan, 2020).

Today the market offers alternative disposable solutions using different materials and systems such as aluminum cans, cardboard, returnable glass, etc. None of them, however, is completely free from environmental impacts, but rather each of these contributes to feeding the vicious circle of waste production, a practice in the long run unsustainable and relatively ineffective in a circular economy perspective.

In fact, the priorities are different: REDUCE, REUSE and only finally RECYCLE. Thus, was born in recent years the concept of reusing your container for water and drinks.

Considering that to date many LCA studies on “containers for water and beverages” are unclear or incomplete, and struggle to give an overview of the actual environmental impacts; this study aims to analyze which is the most sustainable system to consume water (or drinks), comparing different types of containers based on their environmental impact (CO2eq emissions), with a particular focus on the practice of reusing your container.

Specifically, in this study, life cycle data (LCA) relating to beverage containers of different materials such as plastic, aluminum and glass are highlighted and reworked, considering different post-consumer management practices such as recycling, reuse of one’s own container and return (returnable containers), drawing from the numerous studies made available by the scientific community, integrated and reworked by our Observatory.

Efficiently managing the production, use and post-consumption of water and beverage containers is essential to give an important boost to the reduction of CO2eq emissions, contributing to the achievement of the sustainability objectives set for 2030.

But not only that, because acting in a sustainable way on the life cycle of containers (e.g., bottles) also means saving resources and energy and limiting the dispersion of waste, especially plastic (and microplastics) as potentially harmful to our health and that of our ecosystem.

1.1. The Observatory of Associazione PIÙINFORMA

The Observatory of the PIÙINFORMA Association was founded in 2020 with the aim of analyzing data on food consumption “away from home” at an international level.

The Observatory collects, processes and develops data and information relating to the agri-food and environmental sector, making use of people and companies that are experts in the sector and who share with us the same objectives and values.

Data and information derive from the contribution of:

  1. Operators in the sector (managers)


  1. Manufacturers of machinery and vending machines


  1. Food manufacturers


  1. Manufacturers of containers and materials (plastic, bioplastic, cardboard, etc.)


  1. Food and beverage resale and distribution companies


  1. Trade fairs and magazines


  1. Press releases and websites of companies in the sector and manufacturers


  1. Associations and distributor groups


Scientific studies in the field


2.1. The 9R system

Starting from the 80s in Europe the concept of the 3Rs developed a scheme designed to give priority to different waste and energy management systems. The 3Rs refer to Reduction, Reuse and Recycling.

Over time the concept has evolved to integrate 6 new different types of waste and product management, today defined as a whole 9R: Refuse (avoid), Rethink (rethink), Reduce (reduce), Re-use (reuse), Repair (repair), Refurbish (restore), Remanufacture (regenerate), Repurpose (re-propose), Recycle (recycle), Recover (recover).

water park,water,bottles water

Under scheme 9R, reuse is given higher priority than recycling in order to avoid unnecessary use of energy and limit the extraction of resources. Despite this, companies and public and private bodies still focus mainly on recycling, and today’s data shows that their management plans do not work as expected, with extremely low waste recycling rates, especially for plastics. In fact, in Europe, in 2013, only 10% of plastic packaging was recycled, of which only 2% returned to the same production chain. The remaining percentage was recycled to produce objects of lower quality (downcycling).

Unlike recycling, reuse avoids the extraction of resources, reduces energy consumption, reduces waste production, by far limiting CO2 emissions. A greater awareness of the consumer on the actual advantages of reuse would allow the transition to a market where the producer is incentivized to manufacture more resistant products over time and during the cycles of use.

Recycling should be seen as the last alternative before disposal, when other circular management systems are not feasible.

2.2 Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

All processed data are derived from product life cycle assessment studies. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool used to measure the environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle. The type of application may vary depending on the life stages considered. In most cases the analyses were carried out with a “cradle to grave” approach.

2.3. Recycle of a PET bottle

water park,water,bottles water

To date, recycling involves only 40% of the 11 billion bottles released for consumption in Italy every year, while recycling from bottle to pet bottle concerns just over 5%. As a result, 95% of recycled plastic, by downcycling, is often used to manufacture lower quality products.

The recycling process has a considerable cost, both in economic and environmental terms. As can be seen from Figure 2, recycling a bottle of PET means involving as many as 6 transports. The bottles are composed of resins that are derived from oil and natural gas. Oil and gas are often transported long distances to plastic companies, using fossil fuels and producing greenhouse gases.

When distances are high, transportation can account for over 30% of the entire carbon footprint of the plastic bottle. (Sciencing, 2018)

As if that were not enough, a plastic bottle can be recycled a maximum of 2-3 times before losing its structural integrity to the point that it can no longer be recycled (National Geographic, 2018).

2.4. Returnable containers

Returnable containers are a practice linked above all to water and beverages in glass bottles, which consists in returning the empty container to the company from which it derives, to allow sanitization, filling and subsequent re-placing on the market, thus contributing to the reuse of the bottle itself.

A practice once quite widespread, however, fallen into disuse as the exclusive prerogative of glass bottles, nowadays now replaced by plastic bottles.

The scheme from the production of a glass bottle to its recovery and reuse can be schematized as follows:


Unlike the other methods, the return of glass bottles involves a washing and sterilization phase that involves a specific environmental impact that is repeated with each cycle of reuse of the bottle.

In addition, according to a study by Lauretana (Lauretana, 2020), a glass bottle can be reused on average 8 times, before being permanently damaged due to the rubbing that occurs throughout its life cycle.

This means that after every 8 cycles of reuse, it is necessary to produce a new bottle, which in the case of glass, involves a huge environmental impact.

2.5. Reuse of your container

As you can see from the figure below, reusing your container considerably reduces the number of phases of the life cycle with a consequent lower environmental impact. Once the container has been produced, in fact, it can be reused an extremely large number of times, which depends on different factors such as type of material and care and attention of the owner.

It is not the purpose of this study to demonstrate which of the various materials for own containers is the best from the point of view of reuse cycles. We can only hypothesize that materials such as plastic are more sensitive to dents and accidental damage that can also be caused during the washing phase of the container. Materials such as glass and aluminum can be reused virtually an infinite number of times, in practice in a study by (E. Tamburini, 2021) it was hypothesized as realistic a use time of 25 years for aluminum bottles.

water park,water,bottles water

3. Methodology

For this study, data from other scientific studies that met the following criteria were considered:

  1. Comparative studies of different types of containers for water or other beverages.


  1. Studies using the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method based on ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 standards.


  1. Studies published after 2010. Important criterion considering the continuous improvement of the efficiency of the different phases of the life cycle of the products over the years.


The data were then presented and reprocessed where necessary.

4. Results and discussion

A first study that demonstrated the clear advantage of reusing its container was conducted by Tamburini (E. Tamburini et al., 2021) the life cycle of disposable 500 ml water bottles in PET and PLA and a reusable 750 ml aluminum bottle of the person was analyzed.

The aim is to assess which of these options is the best from the point of view of CO2 emissions, considering an average consumption of 1.5 L of water per day for a year.

The limits of the system consider all phases of the life cycle of the bottles, from the extraction and transport of raw materials, to production and end of life, with the exception of the production and transport of secondary packaging.

As can be clearly seen from the graph below, although an aluminum bottle has a significant environmental impact related to its production, reusing it several times allows to significantly reduce CO2eq emissions compared to the conventional disposable of PET and PLA bottles. To be able to consume an average of 1.5 L of water in a year would require 1095 bottles of 500 ml, against a single aluminum bottle.

water park,water,bottles water

Although Stefanini’s study has demonstrated the enormous environmental advantage deriving from the reuse of its container compared to plastic, which we remember to be one of the most used materials in this sector, to definitively clarify and remove any doubt about the actual advantage of reuse, we wanted to consider a series of other types of container.

We have therefore considered several studies [4], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [12], [16] and integrated the data coming from them to give a more general overview of comparison between different materials/containers.

In the “container” category, all stages related to the production of the container such as raw materials, auxiliary materials (e.g., caps, labels) and manufacturing processes were taken into account. In packaging, all the necessary packaging has been considered. In “end of life” the processes deriving from the post-consumption of the container (e.g., disposal, recycling) were taken into account, while in “transport” all transports between the phases were taken into account on the basis of the reference studies.

The results of the study were then compared to a consumption scenario equal to 1.5 L of water consumed in a day, for a working year (220 days), for a total of 330 L of water consumed. We then reworked the data based on the impact of the following materials:

  • Glass
  • PET
  • R-PET
  • Aluminium
  • Cardboard (Tetra Pak ®)
  • Glass (return, returnable)
  • Reuse of your own glass or aluminium bottle

For each calculation we assumed a consumption of 500ml containers, the results were then compared to this value.

water park,water,bottles water

According to the data obtained, glass was found to be the worst option; the production of a glass bottle in fact needs to reach temperatures ranging from 1500 ° C to 1700 ° C causing high energy consumption and CO2 emissions. The high weight also affects a greater impact deriving from the transport phase.

The impact of a returned bottle (returnable bottles) is clearly lower than its disposable counterpart, for the simple fact that it is reused 8 times as specified in chapter 2.4. However, it has an important additional phase linked to recovery (transport), washing and sanitization and transport to the bottling factory, capable of causing an important consumption of energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

PET and aluminium are among the materials for disposable containers that involve the lowest emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, surpassed only by cardboard.

With regard to R-PET, the data were obtained by simulating a greater impact deriving from transport and end of life than conventional PET. The reason comes from the fact that making an R-PET bottle means involving a series of post-consumer operations for waste management, without forgetting that a bottle can be recycled on average from 2 to 3 times.

In our opinion, the data currently made available by the scientific community are not sufficient or detailed to the point of being able to give a definitive verdict on this material and its environmental impacts. Recycling PET “bottle-to-bottle” means recovering, sorting, washing, shredding, processing and transporting every single bottle, with consequent environmental impacts. It is therefore considered appropriate to deepen the research and study of this material in such a way as to make more clarity on the subject.

Finally, the reuse of your bottle is the system that allows you to have the lowest environmental impact (CO2 emissions), with an assimilable advantage of more than 90%.

As you can clearly guess, producing a single container (be it glass, aluminum, or other) and reusing it several times by filling it through network dispensers or on tap, is by far the most sustainable option ever.

water park,water,bottles water

4.1 Impact of transport

One of the most impressive data concerns transport, a parameter that in many studies is unclear but which in reality has an extremely important impact. If we think that on average the life cycle of a PET bottle involves about 6 transports, we can deduce that it has a fundamental role in the incidence of environmental impact in terms of CO2eq emissions. The same concept can therefore also be extended to other types of containers.

water park,water,bottles water

With reference to the ACI 2021 tables, assuming that a 3.2-ton truck on average consumes 40 liters of diesel per 100 km, transport about 8,000-10,000 bottles covering about 100 km for each trip, which in many cases are many more if we think that in many places in Southern Italy, we can find bottled water from plants in Northern Italy, it can be highlighted that the transport could affects for more than 40% of the total CO2eq emissions.

Kilometers of roads traveled that are equivalent to tons of greenhouse gas emissions and considerable costs that could be avoided or highly reduced.

5. Conclusion

The main purpose of this study was to compare different systems and types of containers for water and beverages in order to highlight the most sustainable solution.

The results showed that reusing your container is by far the best system.

Among all the materials considered, the plastic bottle (PET) is the one that is used the most today.

Since the 90s, sales of disposable bottled water have increased by 284%, representing 75% of the weight of all plastic containers in the world (, 2020). This means that the production of PET bottles in Italy generates 850,000 tons of CO2 per year and that 7 billion 1.5 L containers of PET today risk being dispersed in the environment and seas with potential damage to our health and our ecosystem.

It is therefore clear that plastics for this sector are environmentally unsustainable. And so is glass, aluminium and recycled PET, so further investigations would be needed in order to verify the actual advantage over traditional PET.

The practice of returning glass bottles, on the other hand, although it may seem at first glance a valid solution, actually hides an important environmental impact that derives from the end-of-life phase and the limited number of reuses due to permanent damage.

In view of what has been seen, it can be assumed that with regard to all the other materials or types of disposable containers on the market today and which have not been directly considered by this study, the single use of them can never have an environmental impact lower than the reuse of its container. In any disposable situation, in fact, there will always be a production, distribution, transport and post-consumer management chain with impacts that multiply for every single container we consume.

6. Bibliography and siteography


  1. Ambrosetti, 2021:
  2. Amienyo D, Guiba H, Stichnothe H, Azapagic A (2013) Life cycle environmental impacts of carbonated soft drink. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18(1):77–92
  3. Simon, M. Ben Amor, and R. Földényi, “Life cycle impact assessment of beverage packaging systems: Focus on the collection of post-consumer bottles,” J. Clean. Prod. , vol. 112, pp. 238–248, 2016.
  4. Blue, Marie-Luise. “What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Plastic Bottle?”, 1 December 2021.
  5. COREPLA, 2018. Il Consorzio nazionale per la raccolta, il riciclaggio e il recupero degli imballaggi in plastica. [Online] Available at:
  6. COREVE, 2019. Consorzio per il riciclo del vetro. [Online] Available at:
  7. Elena Tamburini, Stefania Costa, Daniela Summa, Letizia Battistella, Elisa Anna Fano, Giuseppe Castaldelli, Plastic (PET) vs bioplastic (PLA) or refillable aluminium bottles – What is the most sustainable choice for drinking water? A life-cycle (LCA) analysis, Environmental Research, Volume 196, 2021, 110974, ISSN 0013-9351,
  8. Ferrara, C.; De Feo, G.; Picone, V. LCA of Glass Versus PET Mineral Water Bottles: An Italian Case Study. Recycling 2021, 6, 50. recycling6030050
  9. Green Ration Book,
  10. Greenpeace, L’insostenibile peso delle bottiglie di plastica, 2021.
  11. MPE, Life Cycle Assessment of Aluminium Beverage Cans in Europe,
  12. NAPCOR; Life Cycle Impacts For Postconsumer Recycled Resins: Pet, Hdpe, And Pp, 2018; uploads/2020/05/LCA-2018-APR-Recycled-Resin-Report.pdf
  13. Sciencing; What Are the Benefits of Biodegradable Plastic? 2018
  14. Stefanini, R., Borghesi, G., Ronzano, A. et al.Plastic or glass: a new environmental assessment with a marine litter indicator for the comparison of pasteurized milk bottles. Int J Life Cycle Assess 26, 767–784 (2021).
  15. Tappwater; What is the carbon footprint of bottled water? 2019
  16. Zero Waste Europe; “Reusable vs Single use packaging”