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Reuse and Recycling – why the water cooler sector welcomes the plastic tax

In his Budget on 29 October, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond,  announced proposals for a  new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging that contains less than 30 per cent recycled plastic.

For the water cooler industry, one of the greenest sectors there is, this is welcome news. Water coolers provide convenient and healthy hydration (so are good for the body) with a minimal environmental impact because they are either plumbed in and using mains water or they are using containers that are used time and time again and, once they reach the end of their life, are recycled.

Water coolers are the sustainable drinks choice for businesses, homes and public places. Having delicious, cooled water readily to hand encourages water consumption, which is good for everyone’s health and well-being. Providing that water via a cooler rather than through single-use bottles is a highly sustainable option, as on average each water cooler bottle can be re-used 40-50 times.

Once they reach the end of their life, water cooler bottles are withdrawn from service and recycled. A typical bottle scrappage rate will be around 2 per cent.  A wide variety of products can be then made from the recycled material. Rarely are bottles simply ditched as with single use bottles due to a substantial deposit. No-one As a result, these containers are not thrown in the sea or into the general waste bin.


Most water cooler bottles are polycarbonate, but newer versions may be made of PET with additives to improve durability and clarity.  Take-up of these new style bottles has been slow and the majority of the 313million litres of water sold in a year (Source Zenith Global 2017) are packed in polycarbonate.

Although less versatile than some forms of plastic, polycarbonate can be recycled into a wide variety of products (see ‘Recycling Bottles’ below). Polycarbonate tends to be the material of choice for water cooler bottles because of its high strength and durability, needed to withstand the weight of 18.9 litres of water and the high temperatures used in the wash process.

Any material used for packaging water must be safe for food use and tested to ensure that no harmful chemicals will migrate into the water during storage.  This is a legal requirement (Commission regulation (EU) No.10 /2011 on plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with food; (EU) No.2023/2006, & No.1935/2004).

There are typically 790 gms of material in an 18.9 litre water cooler bottle (this bottle size originating in the US as a 5 gallon bottle). Other bottle sizes for coolers make up a relatively small volume of the market. There will have been approximately 16.5million bottles of water packaged for coolers last year (2017) (based on 313million litres in total). This means that an estimated 13,000 tonnes of polycarbonate packaging is in circulation at any one time.


In 2010, The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) study comparing single trip versus reusable bottles concluded that the average 18.9 litre bottle would make 40-50 trips during its lifetime.  Factors affecting this were:

  • Return rates
  • Design specification
  • Frequency of product shipments
  • Time taken to return to point of filling from the point of customer usage
  • Shelf life of the product in the market
  • Losses due to theft or damage
  • Inspection and cleaning activities.

Recycling Bottles

Before loading onto the production line, every bottle is manually or machine inspected and damaged bottles rejected. Obvious cracks and holes are spotted by line operatives, whilst difficult-to-detect pin-holes and hairline cracks may be picked up by an in-line pressure tester.

As product quality is paramount, heavily soiled bottles are also discarded, along with any that show ’greening’ due to the growth of algae.  Such bottles cannot be properly cleaned without great difficulty.

These discarded bottles are separated from the bottle stock, holed or marked to prevent re-use, and crushed into bales ready for collection. Industry benchmarking has identified that an average wastage figure of 2 per cent of returned bottles are recycled at each inspection – but ultimately all bottles are recycled.

Although polycarbonate bottles are fully recyclable, the material loses strength in the recycling process so only a small percentage can be used in the manufacture of new bottles. However there are numerous other uses for recycled polycarbonate, including:

  • Head lamp lenses
  • Dashboards
  • Electronic component housing
  • Mobile phones
  • Battery boxes
  • CDs and DVDs
  • Traffic Lights


Phillipa Atkinson-Clow, General Manager of the British Water Cooler Association says: “The BWCA has a sustainability programme which we called the ‘5 for 5 Pledge’. This encourages members to further improve the sector’s already excellent sustainability record and to share experience with other members and business more widely. It’s helping by enabling members to share between them and with other companies their examples of good practice; to improve their businesses not just environmentally but in terms of water management and community support too, for instance; and by demonstrating what a sustainable sector this is”.

For further information and case studies on the ways in which BWCA Members approach sustainability please visit




Mr Hammond said during his budget speech: “Where we cannot achieve reuse, we are determined to increase recycling.” In one industry at least, there is a message of ‘business as usual’.

Reference: www.bwca.co.uk Sustainability is very much at the top of BWCA’s agenda.  This article was written by BWCA’s communication’s consultant Axiom, which appears Refreshment magazine dated Dec 2018/Jan2019

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