Plastic is convenient but it doesn't disintegrate in landfills and can leach chemicals that can cause cancer.
What's the answer?
Bradford Schulman may have it: Green Planet, a company producing bottled water packaged in more environmentally friendly materials.
With processed plant waste material from Cargill's Natureworks subsidiary, Schulman's is one of a handful of companies bottling water in plastic-like bottles that are reusable and biodegradable.
"They're pretty comparable to a regular plastic bottle," said the Glencoe, Ill., entrepreneur who spent years in the beverage distribution industry.
Green Planet takes Natureworks' Ingeo polylactic acid pellets and fashions them into bottles that are then filled with distilled water. The convenience store chain 7-Eleven is testing the $1.49 bottles of water in Chicago and the product is available in 18 markets, but Schulman's market is really institutional buyers -- schools, corporate campuses, national parks, the hospitality sector.
Schulman came across the idea while he was operating Chicagoland Beverage Co.
"The company had matured and was doing quite well. It was either expand the distribution business or look at other opportunities," Schulman said.
One of his suppliers was a company called Biota out of Colorado, which was pushing water in more environmentally friendly packaging. When the company went out of business about four years ago, Schulman realized "if nobody builds the concept, it may never happen. It was an 'ah-ha' moment. I decided to go for it."
Schulman admitted it's tough to break into the bottled water business since most of the players are multinational corporations and his production costs are much higher than those of the well-known brands. The concept had to be approached as a "value proposition," addressing petroleum use.
Discarded plastic bottles are a "blight worldwide," said Schulman, who notes the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has sparked more interest in his operation.
"Every 72 bottles we produce saves 1 gallon of oil," he said. "In the industry in bottled water alone, 1.1 billion gallons are used in production of plastic bottles."
He's out to educate the public in addition to selling water.
"I demonstrate the bottles in schools," he said. "I take a blowtorch to a regular plastic bottle. It turns to black smoke. Then I burn one of our bottles. It burns clean. If you put it into really hot water, it shrivels and I can smash it between my hands."
Since the bottles are made of plant starch, they will eventually break down. Testing by others indicated they break down in about 80 days. He also noted that since the waste comes from processing No. 2 yellow dent corn, there's no impact on the food supply.
Schulman said if the venture is successful, he could capture 5 percent to 10 percent of the market.
"If you think about it, someone is going to break through. I can see a section in the grocery store, a petroleum-free zone. I hope in a few years there will be 10 to 20 brands doing what we're doing," he said.
The bottles have an eight-month shelf life. After that, they start losing their rigidity, he said.
Schulman admits water is just a tiny portion of the beverage market and, so far, no one has been able to produce a plant-based bottle that can withstand carbonation.
"Water's a healthy drink. It's tough to drink eight glasses a day out of a water fountain. Everybody is attacking the water but not the sodas."