If you were asked how long it takes the average plastic water bottle to biodegrade, what would be your guess? Would you have thought maybe 100 or 200 years? Recent research from the Container Recycling Institute of America suggests that plastic bottles take some 700 years to breakdown into their toxic elements. Oh, is that all? Today, 80% of all general public solid waste ends up in landfill, while 10% is incinerated and only the last 10% is recycled. Because less than a single percent of plastics are recycled, almost all plastics end up in landfill sites. Or do they?
It shouldn’t only be alarming that landfill stations worldwide are amassing billions of throwaway plastics, but that the oceans and river systems are too. Early last month, British adventurer and environmentalist David de Rothschild embarked on a spectacular voyage into the Pacific aboard a vessel engineered entirely of plastic products – the heralded ‘Plastiki’.
Traveling from San Francisco to Sydney, his crew’s mission is to heighten awareness of the tragic “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Located north-west of Hawaii, the patch was exposed in 1999 by researchers who found that the plastic, most from coastal cities in Asia and California, is “trapped indefinitely” by a vortex of currents that circulate clockwise around the North Pacific. The scientists approximate that the patch contains tens of thousands of plastic pieces per square mile, and its very existence is an ecological disaster.
In an interview with the Guardian UK, de Rothschild said, “The plastic water bottle epitomises everything about this throwaway, disposable society […] though I want the Plastiki to make a statement that it’s our lack of reuse, uses and disposal that it is at fault, and not the material itself”. Check out Tweets, facts and photos from de Rothschild’s journey by visiting: http://www.theplastiki.com/.
The long lives of plastic bottle pose a serious threat to the environment, but after 20 years the sales of bottled water might have finally reached a pinnacle. Non-profit organisation Food & Water Watch recently released a report labeled Bluewashing. In the document, research states, “The bottled water industry is a prime example of a corporate sector that is using these misleading marketing tactics to sell its products. In 2008, bottled water sales declined for the first time in years, partially due to the economy, but also largely due to growing awareness about the social and environmental impacts of the product”.
A growing social and environmental awareness has echoed through recent articles posted by the Washington Post, America’s National Public Radio and the Beverage Marketing Company. But also in 2008, Australians spent a record $500 million on bottled water. In response to the alarming figures, former New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees decided to take action. “We’re asking government departments to phase it out […] The reality is that the majority of people (surveyed) prefer tap water over spring or purified water in a blind taste test,” said Rees in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “These plastic bottles are everywhere,” he said. And still there remain billions of discarded plastic bottles adrift in the ocean currents and buried beneath once fertile land. Why is bottled water so popular?
The agencies and regulations
In Australia, new tap water drinking guidelines are being drafted and discussed. The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/publications/synopses/eh19syn.htm) is undergoing a rolling revision that aims to encompass the latest scientific evidence on good quality drinking water. On the other hand, the Australasian Bottled Water Institute (ABWI) is the responsible industry association for water bottlers and suppliers in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The ABWI work closely with their government regulators and affiliates to ensure their consumers “enjoy safe, high quality, good tasting bottled water”. Nevertheless, to ensure these standards are met, the bottled water industry demands petroleum and energy to produce its billions of plastic packaging:
“In a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) quoted waste industry experts who claimed that for the purpose of landfill management, the bottled would never decompose. A significant amount of energy is further used in the transportation of bottled water products. This too can cause more pollution and contribute to global warming,” (Bluewashing, 2010).
In recent years, Gigi Kellett and the Corporate Accountability International group (CAI) in the United States – renowned for their unyielding campaigns against tobacco companies in the 90s – have been quashing common water and bottled water misconceptions. In an interview with AlterNet, Kellett said not only does tap water often taste the same as bottled water, but it is also often safer to drink as well. “They are spending tens of millions of dollars every year to undermine our confidence in tap water even though water systems here in the United States are better regulated than bottled water,” she said. In the US tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which imposes strict limits on chemicals and bacteria, constant testing by government agencies, and mandatory notification to the public in the event of contamination.
As opposed to water from the tap, bottled water in the US is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which by federal law is bound to the same standards as the EPA. According the report from Alternet, “The devil is in the details, since FDA regulations only apply to water that is bottled and transported between states, it excludes the two-thirds of water that is solely transported within states. What’s more, FDA regulations rely on companies to do their own testing, and perform voluntary recalls if products are found to be in violation of standards”(http://www.alternet.org/story/43480/). A 1999 study of more than 1,000 bottles of water by the National Resources Defense Council found that while most bottled water was safe, some brands violated strict state standards on bacterial contamination, while others were found to contain harmful chemicals such as arsenic. The report concluded that bottled water was no safer than water taken from the tap.
Today, almost two thirds of the non-carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages are packaged in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles. Especially prone to littering, these bottles have a lower recycling rate than any of the most common packaging materials. PET plastic is a petroleum product. Because it is currently recycled at a low rate, tens of billions of new plastic bottles must be manufactured each year from virgin materials — fossil fuels — to replace those that were not recycled. In 2005, The Container Recycling Institute estimated that approximately 18 million barrels of crude oil were used to replace the two million tons of PET bottles that were dumped in landfill stations. When PET plastics are constructed using virgin materials (rather than used bottle resin), greenhouse gases are produced. In the making of 50 billion PET bottles, an estimated 800 thousand metric tonnes of carbon equivalent (MTCE) were released into the earth’s atmosphere. Regardless of the bottle’s weight or what the plastic is made of, a plastic bottle still needs to be disposed of. The problem still remains – three out of every four bottles still end up thrown out in the trash (US GAO, 2009).
Alternatives, solutions and conclusions
It has been shown that there are a litany of environmental and ecological consequences pertaining to the processing, production and disposal of plastic bottles. There are many, many case studies and scientific reports that relate the impact of the bottle to the endangerment of wildlife and marine life, air and water pollution associated with raw material extraction; as well as land filling and incineration.
However, all hope is not lost. Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60-watt light bulb for up to six hours. Recycled plastic bottles can be remade into products like clothing, carpeting, detergent bottles and lumber for outdoor decking. Furthermore, producing new plastic products from recycled materials uses two-thirds less energy than is required to make products from raw (virgin) materials. This in turn also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Realistically, the production of plastics for bottles and other packaged goods seem unlikely to grind to a screaming halt anytime soon. Though in decline, the demand for bottled water is high; the convenience is apparent and their popularity is still prevalent.
With knowledge of the dangers plastic bottles can have on the environment and on one’s self, as well as their inflated cost and, indeed, the fact tap water tastes fine and is highly regulated, should be reason enough to take up the challenge and promote healthy and environmentally safe water habits. The buck stops with you!
Bottled Water Facts
- Australians spend more than half a billion dollars a year on bottled water. Last year, the sale of bottled water increased by 10 percent.
- Producing and delivering a litre of bottled water can emit hundreds of times more greenhouse gases than a litre of tap water.
- According to British research, drinking one bottle of water has the same environmental impact as driving a car for a kilometre.
- In many cases, a litre of bottled water is more expensive than a litre of petrol. Department of Environment and Climate Change estimates that 200ml of oil is used to produce, package, transport and refrigerate each litre bottle of bottled water. As a result, at least 50 million litres of oil are used in the manufacture and distribution of bottled water in Australia every year.
- Australia recycles only 36% of PET plastic drink bottles.
- In South Australia, which has Container Deposit Legislation, the plastic bottle recycling rate is 74%. A 2007 national Newspoll commissioned by Clean Up Australia found that those polled 82% support a CDL scheme of 10c on bottles.
- Australia’s annual use of bottled water generates more than 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – the same amount that 13,000 cars generate over the course of a year.
- (Bottled Water Alliance – www.bottledwateralliance.com.au)
- Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
- The average American consumes 167 bottles of water a year.
- The federal standards for tap water are higher than those for bottled water.
- Americans will buy an estimated 25 billion single-serving, plastic water bottles this year. Eight out of 10 (22 billion) will end up in a landfill.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate 60-70 percent of bottled water.
- For the 30-40 percent it does regulate, the FDA only requires companies to test a sample of water once per week.
- The EPA requires testing of municipal water systems between 300-480 times per month
- The shipment of bottled water burns massive quantities of fossil fuel, a weekly convoy of 37,000 18- wheelers.
- The incineration of the plastic bottles releases toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash laden with heavy metals into the air.
- According to the Beverage Marketing Corp, the average American consumed 1.6 gallons of bottled water in 1976. In 2006, that number jumped to 28.3 gallons.
- Today, 80 percent of Americans have access to a plastics recycling program.
- More than 2.4 billion pounds of plastic bottles were recycled in 2008. Although the amount of plastic bottles recycled in the U.S. has grown every year since 1990, the actual recycling rate remains steady at around 27%.
- In 2007, more than 325 million pounds of wide-mouth plastic containers were recovered for recycling. (This included deli containers, yogurt cups, etc.)
- In recent years, the number of U.S. plastics recycling business has nearly tripled. More than 1,600 businesses are involved in recycling post-consumer plastics.
- Plastics in the U.S. are made primarily (70%) from domestic natural gas.
- Plastic bags and product wraps (known collectively as “plastic film”) are commonly recycled at the many collection programs offered through major grocery stores.
- Recycling just one tonne of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space.
- During Keep America Beautiful’s 2008 Great American Cleanup, volunteers recovered and recycled 189,000,000 PET (plastic) bottles that littered highways, waterways and parks.
- (http://www.container-recycling.org/, http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org, http://www.nrdc.org/, http://www.recyclenow.org/, http://www.epa.gov/)