‘We want plastic to become taboo’: the rise in giant reusable water bottles

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

With recent scorching temperatures forming an undeniable illustration of the climate crisis, consumer habits have been marked by an attendant interest in items relating to sustainablility. Among the most popular of eco accessories is the reusable water bottle. This summer, the bigger and more motivational your bottle, the better.

In 2021, the global reusable water bottle market was valued at $8.64bn. This is expected to increase by 4.3% in 2022.

A number of factors are at play, including a return to work coupled with heightened concern over plastic pollution and its potential to leach into water and food. Research shows that 75% of adults in the UK are concerned about the impact of the climate crisis.

Among 2022’s success stories is Hydroflask, a favourite among Gen Z, whose 1.8-litre stainless steel bottles have contributed to a sales increase of 19% since last year. Bestselling “gorpcore” brand Nalgene, whose 909ml bottles are made from BPA-free plastic, is widely considered the bag-for-life of reusable bottles. Though the company was unable to disclose sales figures, Elissa McGee, Nalgene’s general manager, says they have seen “persistent demand since the pandemic as daily routines and travel returns to more conventional patterns”.

The Hydrojug, another BPA-free shatterproof tankard that comes with a neoprene sleeve, has people carrying around a massive 2 litres of water and became famous after its appearance on Big Timber, a reality TV series on Netflix about a Canadian lumberyard. By comparison, the diminutive 1.1-litre stainless steel Adventure Quencher Travel Tumbler, made by venerable US brand Stanley, which specialises in camping gear, routinely sells out in the US (it reportedly has a 135,000-strong waiting list).

Never slow to ride the wave of a trend, Khloe Kardashian is known to favour her two-litre resuable jug – some of which come with mindful affirmations scrawled down the side to encourage you to drink.

The surge in popularity of these reusable vessels has also brought about water bottles that come with accompanying apps that monitor your intake and chastise you when you miss your goal, as well as smart bottles that cost £180 to keep your tea warm (as used by Rishi Sunak), these rainbow-hued bottles have turned hydration into a competitive sport.

City to Sea, a Bristol-based nonprofit organisation that campaigns to prevent marine plastic pollution at source, has overseen the placement of 35,000 refillable water stations in stations, airports and beaches this year, an increase of 10,000 from 2019.

Founder Natalie Fee thinks the spike in huge refillable bottles has as much to do with the recession as the climate. “Despite an obvious dip during the pandemic [we have since seen] a huge increase in awareness over the heatwave – from a health and staying-hydrated perspective, [but also] from a cost of living one.” Fee says the large bottles “are a bit weird but I can see why it’s happening”.

In recent years, the status water bottle – stainless steel, BPA-free plastic or made from partially recycled materials and rendered in candy-colour hues – has become the go-to signifier of eco-credentials among young people. Keen to capitalise on the green pound, high-end brands followed suit – Prada’s £75 “milk urn” remains one of the most popular reusable water repositories on the market. Put simply, “the messaging is if you carry a reusable bottle you care”, says Nina Schrank, head of the plastics campaign at Greenpeace. “It helps if they look good, aesthetically. People will be more inclined to carry them about.”

But despite a renewed interest in bottles made from materials such as stainless steel, global plastic use is expected to increase by almost 4% by 2030.

Schrank is alarmed that plastic remains the dominant material. The health effects of BPA-free plastic, which is widely used in refillable water bottles, remains open to debate in bodily health and the environment.

“Reusable stainless steel bottles are the best material, and while they’re becoming more prevalent they’re not yet displacing plastic ones” she adds, agreeing that cost is also a factor – plastic will always be cheaper than Prada. “What we want is for plastic bottles to become a bit of a taboo – like smoking.”