22 March 2017

Reducing wastewater by recycling packaging

Dr. Christopher Briggs, Executive Director, Water Footprint Network

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This year’s World Water Day (22nd March) asks us how we can reduce, reuse and recycle wastewater and improve water quality. As our population increases, our growing demand for food and goods is leading to greater volumes of wastewater being generated. Today, water pollution caused by wastewater is rapidly becoming a global issue.

We have highlighted how, while cleaning and reusing wastewater will help alleviate this problem, it is also vital that we reduce the amount of water we pollute in the first place. We have looked at five industrial products that many of us use every day and are used in packaging. The results show how much water pollution is generated during the production of packaging and demonstrate how we can all help as good citizens to significantly reduce wastewater by reducing and recycling our packaging.

Of the many materials commonly used to make many of our daily products, steel, aluminium, glass, paper and plastics are five materials that we interact with almost every day. These same materials are also commonly used to make packaging for almost all our products.

Globally, we produce 400 million tonnes of packaging each year. We rely on it to protect our food, clothes, electronics and other goods during transportation and storage. Yet for us to have this packaging, we put a great pressure on water resources in countries involved in producing the raw materials and in manufacturing of packaging, equivalent to between 650 and 800 billion cubic meters of water annually. When we produce any packaging, we need to use large amounts of water but at the same time we frequently pollute our water and that is an extra hidden cost on our packaging.

description Water pollution is measured using the ‘grey water footprint’. This is the amount of water needed to assimilate pollutants to levels that do not compromise water quality standards. It helps us measure the pressure we put on water resources as a result of pollution. The manufacture of packaging results in a large grey water footprint, with plastics and paper being the largest.

The grey water footprint caused in the production of plastic packaging, for example, is up to 330 billion cubic metres per year, which is equivalent to 330,000 Empire State Buildings full of water and could supply China with domestic water for six months.


Data: Water Footprint Network and referenced materials (2); Icons: Water Footprint Network & Creative Commons License; Source credit: Water Footprint Network.

description In our interconnected world, the production of most of our goods, including packaging, is spread across many countries. For example, in order to make an aluminium beverage can, water is polluted in countries like Australia and Brazil where the raw material (bauxite mineral) is mined and more water is polluted when the can is manufactured in countries like China, the main world producer of aluminium products.

Many of the regions where mining and production of packaging materials occur are already severely impacted by water pollution and water scarcity, such as China, Brazil and the USA.


Data: Water Footprint Network and referenced materials (4), (5), (6), (7); Icons: Water Footprint Network & Creative Commons License; Source credit: Water Footprint Network.

While there is much that companies can do to reduce the amount of pollution caused during the production of packaging, good global citizens can also significantly improve water quality around the world by reducing the amount of packaging they use and by recycling all they use in their lives.

Global recycling rates are currently low (3). The country with the highest levels of recycling (for plastics, paper and board, glass, steel and aluminum) is Slovenia (55%), with South Korea (49%) and Germany (47%) following closely behind. However, many other countries fall far behind, such as Brazil (1%), the USA (24%) or the United Kingdom (28%). At the same time, the USA, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom and Australia have the highest levels of waste produced per person. Recycling will not only reduce water pollution but can also contribute to reducing water scarcity.


Data: Water Footprint Network and referenced materials (3); Icons: Water Footprint Network & Creative Commons License; Source credit: Water Footprint Network.

Let’s celebrate World Water Day by taking the future into our own hands. By recycling plastic, paper, glass, aluminium and steel, we can all help improve water quality and contribute to a sustainable world in which clean fresh water is accessible to all.


  1. Rural Water, Not City Smog, May be China’s Pollution Nightmare, an article based on
  2. Bosman R, Gerbens-Leenes PW, Hoekstra AY (2016) The blue and grey water footprint of construction materials: Steel, cement and glass, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 70. UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands
  3. D-Waste, The Waste Atlas, (2017) Available at:
  4. FAO, (2017) FAOSTAT Forestry Production and Trade. Available at: 
  5. Plastics Europe (2017) Plastics – the Facts 2014/2015 An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data. Available at:
  6. IISI (2008) International Iron and Steel Institute. Steel packaging a recycling success story. Available at:
  7. USGS (2017)  Minerals statistics and information. Available at:

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