The Environmental Impact of Plastic Water Bottles And All You Need to Know
There’s a lot of information circulating about the plastic pollution epidemic, specifically, disposable single-use plastics. With alarming statistics and new studies surfacing every day, we’ve decided to spotlight the issue with a comprehensive write-up about the environmental impact of plastic water bottles. This article breaks down everything you need to know about one of the most popular disposable plastic items worldwide and the impact it has on our planet.
It should come as no surprise that one of the most pressing environmental issues we face is plastic pollution. In 2016, we consumed 400 billion plastic water bottles around the globe, equivalent to 1 million plastic water bottles per minute, or 20,000 bottles per second. Approximately only 9% of all plastic gets recycled, while the remaining 91% ends up in landfills or leaches into our oceans. In the US alone, we go through 50 billion plastic bottles per year or 100 million plastic water bottles per day.
It can take over 400 years for plastic water bottles to biodegrade. Microplastics (tiny plastic particles) breakdown and embed themselves in our food chain as they are ingested by marine life-threatening larger ecosystems and consequently, human health. Though plastic bottles are convenient and sometimes necessary for clean water in rural areas, lack of government oversight has lead to the proliferation of plastic disposables and it has become an industry that has produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic in the last 6 decades, of which 6.3 billion tons has become plastic waste.
Despite the fact that water bottles often ring in at two or three dollars a piece – a high upcharge for something most can get for free – bottled water is still perceived as the ‘cleanest’ way to drink water. This overconsumption of plastic has led to excessive waste caused by littering, poor recycling programs, and landfill spillover which some scientists predict will become as serious a problem as climate change.
How much plastic is in the ocean?
It is estimated that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans, spanning everything from plastic wrappers to microplastics that are millimeters in size. Each year eight million tons of plastic gets dumped into our oceans, the equivalent of filling five grocery bags worth of plastic waste for each foot of coastline around the world.
If you are not familiar with the 5 gyres, they are systems of circulating ocean currents around the world. One of these gyres, The North Pacific Gyre, contains what’s known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ one of the largest collections of plastic waste on our planet. This gyre swirls around like a vortex – a sort of slow-moving whirlpool – scooping up marine debris and plastic garbage along the way, most of which are small particles of microplastics invisible to the naked eye. It covers an area now estimated to be twice the size of Texas and spans 600,000 square miles. Just a few weeks ago, The Ocean Cleanup – founded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat – launched a massive plastic cleaning device made of sections of floating plastic pipes and nets that will trap debris floating near the surface. This ambitious, although controversial project, has received criticism from scientists worried that it may harm marine life – the jury is still out whether this type of surface sweeping is effective and if it could remain a long-term solution.
How does plastic affect the ocean?
Plastic kills over 100,000 sea turtles and birds every year. Sea turtles are currently consuming twice as much plastic as they did 25 years ago, and if you are having a hard time visualizing this, here is a video of a sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nostril that went viral a few years back. One in three Laysan Albatrosses in the Midway Atoll are killed by consuming so much plastic that it completely fills their stomach, resulting in malnutrition, starvation, and death. Entanglement, in which an animal becomes trapped by an object, is another major concern with plastic waste. Plastic water bottles may act as an inadvertent trap or shelter for small fish and crustaceans, while larger animals may not get stuck inside the bottles, they do try to consume and break down anything that may contain prey. Even if larger marine animals manage to avoid eating plastic, they’re often consuming animals who have already ingested microplastics. These toxic elements eventually work their way up the food chain while damaging all forms of marine life.
What’s the impact of plastic water bottles on human health?
Our health is fundamentally linked to the oceans. Over 70% of the oxygen produced in the atmosphere is produced from marine plants (phytoplankton), despite the misconception that is primarily land-based flora. The colossal amount of plastic dumped into our oceans ends up getting inadvertently consumed by marine life, making its way into our (human) food chain and our meals. Most of the food we source and consume from our oceans have all ingested plastic in one form or another. Sewage sludge – a by-product of sewage water treatment – is used in many countries to fertilize agriculture, and microplastics found in sewer water end up contaminating this fertilizer, polluting our soil, and once again, appearing on our dinner plate in yet another form.
How much plastic gets recycled?
Estimates show that less than 9% of all plastic produced gets recycled. These low recycle rates are due to a number of variables – sometimes the containers are mixed with labeling that is of different material, and because of the varying chemical compositions of different types of plastic, recycling these materials together can become very toxic. PET or PETE which is the clear plastic used for most soda and water bottles is almost 100% recyclable, the primary issue is the lack of recycling infrastructure. With current technology, it’s less expensive for companies to produce new plastic water bottles than it is for them to recycle used bottles. Converting plastic bottles into carpet and apparel is less energy-intensive and laborious than converting it back into food-grade drinking bottles. This type of open-loop recycling process causes degradation of the plastic material, and, over time, creates products that become non-recyclable because they have degraded in quality so significantly.
How big is the water bottle industry?
By 2020, the global water bottle market is expected to reach $280 billion, which means we’ll be spending close to twice the amount of money on water bottles than we currently spend on green energy. In the United States, water bottles are the largest beverage category, surpassing soda in the amount sold each year. It’s a baffling statistic when you consider the availability of free, safe water in the United States – and the United States isn’t alone. Globally, we spend over $100 billion every year on bottled water. To put it in perspective, that’s also the amount we spend every year on cancer medication. In fact, the sales generated from the plastic water bottle industry are so substantial that (in theory) one year's revenue from these corporations could be used to permanently resolve the global water crisis and they would still have a few billion dollars left to pocket.
Nestlé currently leads the water bottle industry, with over 100 water bottle manufacturing plants across 34 countries worldwide. In fact, Nestlé currently pays the US Forest Service for rights to source roughly 30 million gallons of water per year from California, even during droughts, which means this water is being allocated to water bottles that are shipped worldwide before being allocated to local citizens. Coca-Cola, Dalone, and PepsiCo are the next largest water bottle producers.
How are plastic water bottles made and what is the carbon footprint?
Plastic water bottles are generally made of a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). If you’ve ever heard of the dangers of BPA, a hazardous chemical and endocrine disruptor that mimics the hormone estrogen, this is the source material they are often referring to. According to the corporations who are bottling the water, they deny that their plastics contain BPA or any harmful chemicals – while simultaneously they will not disclose what chemical mixtures they use to produce their plastic bottles. BPA has shown a host of dangerous side-effects including fertility issues and prostate cancer. To meet the demand for American consumption, approximately 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce PET alone. If you do the math, the energy required to produce one plastic water bottle is equivalent to filling the bottle ¼ of the way with oil.
Unlike tap water which is distributed through energy efficient infrastructure, producing bottled water involves burning vast quantities of fossil fuels. Raw materials like petroleum and gas have to be transported to plastic manufacturers to create the plastic resin, producing carbon emissions and expanding the water bottles carbon footprint in the process. Once the plastic is produced, pressurized air is used to stretch the plastic into the shape of a water bottle. These plastic bottles are usually ‘hot-filled’, this means when the plastic is blown and it’s piping hot and still off-gassing, it is filled with “purified water”, which immediately pulls all of the contaminants into the water. Afterward, the bottles are cooled by being placed near pipes that have cold water running through them. By the time a bottle of water makes it to a store near you, it has a total carbon footprint equal to 82 grams (or 3 ounces) of carbon dioxide.
Producing plastic water bottles also exhausts water resources, taking over three times as much water to produce a bottle of water than the contents of the container itself. It’s an incredible waste of our clean water supply, especially considering we are on the brink – if not already – of a global water shortage, which means that every drop of water used in producing plastic water bottles is being pulled from local streams and rivers that could supply local communities. The UN estimates that 1.8 billion people will live in areas with critical water shortage by 2025.
But aren’t plastic water bottles a great solution for the clean water crisis?
For developing nations that don’t have clean water infrastructure, plastic water bottles may seem like a godsend. Even if polluting the oceans was a worthy tradeoff for offering clean water to these nations, for the most part, plastic water bottles are not helping these countries address the appropriate issues.
In rural communities, women and children are often walking miles every day to collect water for their families, usually from streams and ponds that are full of pollutants. This limits the time they have to work, earn an income or receive an education, contributing to a cycle of poverty and illness. Those who cannot afford to feed their children or provide healthcare, cannot afford the high costs of bottled water. Meanwhile, developing countries may spend 20%-50% of their budget on waste management alone, leaving them little money to reinvest for clean water infrastructure. Adding waste from plastic water bottles is only compounding their problems. Instead of looking to bottled water manufacturers to solve the world’s water crisis, governments need to invest in clean water delivery infrastructure in underdeveloped and rural areas.
So why do people purchase plastic bottled water? Many people prefer the taste of plastic bottled water to tap water. Blind taste tests, however, show that people can’t actually tell the difference between the two. The irony of it is that many water bottle distributors use tap water to fill their bottles, and the truth is, tap water is better regulated than bottled water in terms of safety requirements (read this article to learn what's in your local tap water). So it seems we are letting an industry package and sell us a product that in most developed nations, we get for free. To make matters worse, these companies are producing an enormous amount of waste while selling water that is readily available in the municipal line.
What countries are the biggest plastic polluters?
While the United States and Mexico may consume the most per capita, we are not the world’s biggest polluter. That award goes to China, though the US is a close second, followed by Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan. Globally, we go through one million plastic water bottles per minute. Of that figure, some countries are consuming significantly more water bottles than others. The US, for example, goes through 1,500 plastic water bottles every second, whereas China consumes 2,156 bottles per second. The glaring problem here is when you consider our respective populations: China is roughly 1.3 billion people, and the US only 350 million. Per capita, the US is consuming far more. In Mexico, because of poor-tap water quality, they have become the world’s largest bottled water consumer per capita, an average of 61 gallons per person each year.
You’ll notice in the table above that these are all industrialized countries, many of which offer clean water to their citizens straight from the tap, and yet these are the countries in which plastic water bottles are imported in the largest quantities. In fact, people in the United States consume more bottled water than milk or beer, and more than half of the airports in the UK don’t provide drinking fountains.
To no surprise, the countries that consume the most bottled water, with the highest rates of pollution, also have the lowest recycling rates. In fact, the countries with the highest recycling rates don’t even make it to the table above. Switzerland leads the way, recycling 52% of all waste – followed by Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.
What are we doing about plastic pollution?
The damage done by plastic water bottles isn’t going entirely ignored. In England, for example, free water bottle refill locations are being installed in local businesses, with the goal of having refill zones in every English town and city by 2021.
Meanwhile, San Francisco has put itself on the map by becoming the first American city to ban the sale of plastic water bottles. They’re backed by the Corporate Accountability’s Think Outside the Bottle campaign which has been encouraging the use of free sources of water.
A number of organizations are hard at work trying to clean up our oceans. For example, the non-profit organization 5Gyres asks people to pledge not to use single-use plastics, and Take 3, based in Australia, challenges people to leave beaches cleaner than they found them.
Unfortunately, moving away from plastic water bottles has been an ongoing struggle, taking two steps back, one step forward. For example, over the past six years, many national parks have banned plastic water bottle sales in an attempt to reduce pollution, but the Trump administration recently overturned that ban. The United States, China, and India all rejected a resolution by the UN to deal with plastic waste in our oceans. And China’s new ban on importing certain foreign waste means that in the future, the likelihood of plastic water bottles being recycled will decrease.
What can you do about it?
It’s clear that we don’t have the luxury of waiting for global policymakers to step in on our behalf. It’s time for all of us to help move the needle, to take a stance against pollutants like plastic water bottles and single-use plastics by taking action ourselves.
The Starfish Story has been circulating the internet for a number of years, and though the original source is unknown, the impact of the story is worth sharing. It goes something like this:
A grandfather went to the beach with his grandson. As they walked along the beach, the grandson would stop every few feet to pick up a starfish and toss it gently into the water.
The grandfather asks his grandson, “What are you doing?”
The grandson says, “The tide is going out. If I don’t throw these starfish into the water, they’ll die.”
His grandfather says, “There are miles and miles of beach with starfish along the path. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
The grandson throws another starfish into the water and says, “I made a difference to that one.”
When facing a global crisis, it can be tempting to bury our heads in the sand. It’s easy to believe that we as individuals cannot possibly make a difference in positively influencing global issues, but as this starfish fable reminds us, every step in the right direction makes a difference – in influencing your family and friends, your community, local businesses – people take notice and everyone becomes more conscious. Slowly, this spirals into a real movement with real policy changes – even if it doesn’t feel like an earth-shattering change at that moment in time, it plays a very critical role. With that in mind, here’s what you can do to reduce consumption of plastic water bottles starting today:
1. Stop purchasing plastic water bottles
If we stop demanding plastic water bottles, supply will decrease. For example, Americans are currently eating 20% less beef than they have in previous years, which has prevented the equivalent of 185 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering our atmosphere.
Perhaps the United States isn’t ready to issue a nationwide ban on plastic water bottles, but there’s no reason you can’t ban them from your home. You could even use the money saved to donate to clean water projects worldwide. The Water Project is fighting to bring clean water to within ½ mile of all villages, and for just $3 – approximately the cost of 17 bottles of water – you can do your part to help out.
Though studies have shown that tap water in the United States is actually better than bottled water, if you are concerned about contaminants in the municipal line, you should install a reverse osmosis water filter on your faucet and consider adding a water remineralizer to ensure you are not drinking sterilized water. For water on the go, purchase a BPA-free borosilicate glass water bottle for yourself and each member of your family. These can be reused and they are non-porous and non-leaching, ensuring that one purchase saves years of waste and provides clean water throughout the day.
2. Educate your children
Educating the next generation on the dangers of single-use plastics ensures that they become conscious consumers now and advocates in the future. In a few short years, our children will be the next lawmakers and policy advisors – make sure they know the impact of single-use plastics and how it affects our environment and their health.
3. Fight for plastic water bottle bans
If San Francisco can ban the use of plastic water bottles, other cities can follow suit. Talk to the officials in your local community, many of whom are already focused on fighting climate change and increasing environmental awareness. Letting our elected officials know that this is a cause that we believe in helps push them to make decisions that benefit our local communities and the world at large.
Of course, the flip side of communicating with your officials is being sure to turn up to vote when these policies are written.
4. Participate in local clean-ups and events
The amount of plastic waste that has entered our oceans is staggering. To combat it, take time to go to your local beach and help clean up the trash that has migrated there. Not only will you reduce waste in the oceans, but you’ll also make your local beach a more pleasant place to visit. If you’re not near a beach, ask your nearest environmental organization how you can help and volunteer.
It can seem like the global plastic pollution epidemic is another tally in the long list of crises that we face and that we cannot control. This could not be further from the truth. You don’t have to be a full-time activist to work towards a better future. By limiting your own consumption of plastic water bottles you help drastically reduce your ecological footprint while simultaneously working towards a more sustainable future.
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