Last updated: September 2013
The water footprint of soft drinks
The water footprint of a soft drink, let’s say a cola, taking into account the direct and indirect water use to produce the drink, ranges between 150 and 300 litres of freshwater per 0.5 litre bottle. A typical bathtub contains 90 litres of water. We therefore consume about two or three bathtubs full of water when drinking a bottle of cola.
The water footprint of a commodity is the total volume of freshwater used – that is consumed or polluted – to produce the commodity, measured over the whole production chain.
It consists of three components:
- green water (rainwater stored in the soil as soil moisture)
- blue water (surface water and groundwater)
- grey water footprint (volume of freshwater polluted)
Water for growing sugar
The largest part of the total water footprint of a beverage is in the process of producing the agricultural ingredients (supply chain), not in the direct operations of manufacturing and processing. In the case of cola produced in Western Europe, for instance, the operational water footprint of the product forms 0.2 to 0.3 per cent of the total. The supply-chain water footprint constitutes 99.7 to 99.8 per cent of the total.
The water footprint of a soft drink is very sensitive to the production locations of the agricultural inputs. Sweeteners, like sugar, are generally the main water-consuming ingredients in a soft drink. For example, the water footprint of a cola significantly changes according to the type of sugar input (cane, beet or high fructose maize syrup) and production location of the sugar even though the amount of sugar is kept constant. The type of water footprint (green, blue, grey) changes according to production location as well, mainly as a result of regional differences in climatic conditions and agricultural practice (see graph).
The total water footprint of 0.5 litre PET-bottle sugar-containing carbonated beverage according to the type and origin of the sugar (SB: sugar beet, SC: sugar cane, HFMS: high fructose maize syrup).1
Agricultural ingredients are associated with considerable environmental and social impacts. For instance, the sugar in the cola is often associated with water pollution as a result of fertilizer and pesticide use. This in turn impacts on biodiversity in downstream water bodies. Most of the time, the price of water consumption and pollution is hardly, or not at all, included in the price of the commodities produced.
Towards sustainable sourcing
The soft drinks sector faces significant challenges to become part of the solution by finding ways to capitalise on a growing need for healthier, more sustainable beverage options. Supply-chain management is key for beverage companies that aim to deliver sustainable products. That means looking “beyond the factory fence” and examining how the ingredients for their products are grown.
Unfortunately, organic and fair trade products are still a small part of product offerings. More and more companies are setting specific targets to increase the use of sustainably sourced and certified raw materials, such as sugar, where traceability is a challenge. And still, the industry has a long way to go in terms of setting broad and high sustainability standards and implementing robust monitoring systems. Transparency and communication is key to building sustainable supply chains and to becoming a true water steward.
The Water Footprint Network is an international learning community that aim to promote a transition towards the sustainable, fair and efficient use of fresh water resources worldwide.