Taste, quality and rPET drive consumer decisions when buying bottled water

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Bottled water sales continue to beat soft drinks - but how do consumers make their choices within the category? Pic:IBWA
Bottled water sales continue to beat soft drinks - but how do consumers make their choices within the category? Pic:IBWA

Related tags Bottled water Us Packaging

In a new survey, 72% of Americans say they are more likely to buy bottled water from brands using recycled content in their packaging than those that don’t. And despite the rise in canned water brands, the majority of consumers still look to buy products in plastic bottles.

Taste and quality are the other strongest factors informing consumer choice: while calorie counts now play less of a factor.

The figures come from a new national survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which says that consumer thirst for bottled water ‘is stronger than ever’.

More popular than soft drinks

Bottled water continues to be the top beverage in the US, outselling soda (by volume) for the seventh year in a row in 2022. Around 96% of Americans have purchased bottled water.

72% of Americans drink both bottled water and tap or filtered water. 19% drink only bottled water, while 8% drink only tap or filtered water (1% say they don’t drink water at all).

The bottled water industry has long championed products as ones that offer a healthy alternative to sugary soda and other drinks: and say that consumer choice continues to shift in this direction.

More than 4 in 5 Americans (83%) now say water of any type is among their most preferred beverages. Looking specifically at bottled water, 65% consider this as a preferred non-alcoholic beverage compared to soft drinks – whether regular or diet – at 58%. And 91% say bottled water should be available wherever other drinks are sold.

According to the survey, 88% of Americans have a ‘positive opinion’ of bottled water, shifting up from 2019 when this figure was 84%. 

Top factors in choosing a bottled water

Consumption occasions

86% of Americans say they drink bottled water while they travel; 84% of employees drink it at work; and 81% drink it at home (a 5% increase from 76% in 2019).

77% drink it at social events where other drinks are served (up 7% from 70% in 2019).

74% drink bottled water when shopping and on the go, 73% drink at sports & entertainment venues, and 67% consume bottled water while exercising.

Bottled water drinkers find many factors important when choosing a beverage: but taste (96%), quality (96%), and safety (90%) are top the list.

Bottled water drinkers also say that features like ready to enjoy (79%), and convenient packaging when on the go (81%).

While calorie counts remain important to consumers, this is not as important as taste or convenience: only 65% identified low calories as an important factor in their choice and 68% said a lack of artificial sweeteners is important.

If plain bottled water is not available, 70% of those who identify bottled water as among their most preferred beverages said they would choose another packaged drink: soda (22%), sparkling or sweetened or flavored bottled water (10%), sports drink (8%), tea (7%), coffee (6%), juice/fruit drinks (5%), functional water (5%), bottled tea (4%), energy drink (3%).

The thorny issue of plastic

Plastic bottles, of course, have long been the Achilles' heel for the bottled water industry: and efforts to boost recycling rates and awareness have been key ways to tackle these concerns.

The survey shows that 90% of Americans agree that it is important to recycle consumer packaging; while a similar number agree that products made from recycled material is better for the environment than virgin material.

To this end, 72% of Americans now say that they are more likely to buy a product packaged in recycled content over ones that are not.

Despite the rise in canned water brands and those using other formats, consumers appear to remain closest to traditional PET formats. Of the bottled water drinkers who indicated a packaging preference (83%), more than 7 out of 10 (73%) preferred bottled water packaged in plastic bottles (16% said glass, 6% said metal cans, and 4% said paper cartons or box).

One of the factors could be that 77% of consumers value re-sealable containers when buying bottled water.

According to the survey, 61% believe that plastic drink contains are more environmentally friendly than other packaging types such as aluminum, cartons and glass.

When it comes to recycling water bottles, Americans are split on which actor – or actors – are primarily responsible. Nearly 2 in 3 (64%) believe it should be consumers, 58% say companies that make or sell bottled water and 47% say the government (41% say local or state and 26% say federal).

Bottled water containers, on average, use 59% less PET plastic than other packaged beverages (9.89 grams vs. 23.9 grams for 16.9-ounce containers), because soft drinks and other sugary beverages need thicker plastic containers due to their carbonation and/or bottling processes, according to the IBWA.

Bottled water is the most recycled PET plastic container in curbside recycling systems in the US: making up 49% of PET plastic collected compared to 18% for soda bottles.

“IBWA encourages consumers to make healthy hydration a part of their daily lives and pick bottled water as their packaged beverage of choice, whether it’s at home, at the office, or on the go. And remember – always recycled any plastic beverage container,” ​says the organization, whose membership includes US and international bottlers, distributors and suppliers.

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