Water is as important to humans as air. Having clean drinkable water available at all times wherever we are, is essential. People who do not have drinkable water running in their home pipes often turn to one option; bottled water. For this reason, the most used container is the plastic bottle. The world buys a million plastic bottles every minute7.
Plastic water bottles come in handy to quench thirst but are the environmental costs worth it?
Manufacturers make plastics out of synthetic organic polymers which they source from fossil fuel. The main materials in making plastic are coal, natural gas, and crude oil. Polyethylene terephthalate is the plastic resin used to make the majority of plastic water bottles. It has been in existence since 1941. A scientist from a chemical company, Du Pont, patented the first PET plastic bottle in 1973 which has since largely come to represent what we know of today as a plastic bottle.
They make plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles from the same type of plastic resin. Whereas a natural assumption is that plastic beverage bottles would have a higher consumption rate than water bottles, in 2016 US bottled water sales were higher than those containing soft drinks.
Since the 1950s, we have produced around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic worldwide. And 60% of that plastic has found its way to landfills or the natural environment. Over the past years, global plastic production has increased thanks to demand by the growing population.
The plastic water bottle may be useful and cheap, but it has environmental consequences. From production to disposal, plastic water bottles affect climate change, humans, and wildlife. We discuss some of the devastating impacts of plastic water bottles below.
Discarded water bottles and their caps make up the third and fourth most recovered plastic trash in Ocean Conservancy’s yearly beach clean-up. It is easy to pick up bits and pieces of plastic from the ocean, but it is impossible to clean the ocean of microplastics. About 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year4 and are killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals yearly.
As these plastics degrade, they break down into microplastics that produce carcinogenic toxins that endanger marine life. Plastic accounts for 80% of the world's marine debris. If we do nothing, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
Even before they completely degrade, tiny bits of plastic find their way into the digestive tract of fish and seabirds. They cause blockages, ulcers, starvation, and eventually death. Plastic waste can also entangle wildlife, resulting in loss of mobility, injuries, and death. Ingesting plastic can also impair the reproductive capacity of ocean wildlife.
Around 700 species of organisms such as turtles, whales, seabirds, fish, and mammals have ingested or become entangled in or with plastic debris5.
The floating microplastics also promote the spread of harmful marine bacteria and invasive organisms, which disrupt the stability of the marine ecosystem.
Read More: The Effect of Plastic Waste on Marine Life
Indiscriminate disposal of plastic bottles in developing countries without a sophisticated waste disposal system can aggravate flooding events. This happens when plastic bottles end up in the sewage or drainage system and create a blockage. Blocked drainage causes a lot of other problems as wastewater accumulates and breeds disease-causing viruses. It also causes air pollution and an unpleasant odor.
PET is durable, but durability is one of its significant problems. A plastic water bottle can last for at least 450 years before it completely disintegrates. Because of its resistance to degradation, a plastic bottle will take up valuable space in landfills for years.
Landfills are not infinite, and they can fill up quickly if we continue to send large volumes of non-biodegradable items like the plastic bottle there.
Perhaps the worst thing about plastic pollution on land is the tendency of waste plastic to migrate to the ocean.
Microplastics are swallowed by fish and are introduced into the human food chain when we eat fish. The average person is exposed to microplastics through water, air, and food throughout the entire year. The toxic nature of microplastics makes them carcinogenic. That places the well-being of people who consume fish at risk.
We may find chemicals like BPA, which is an endocrine disruptor, in plastic. It can leach out into water bodies, sink into the soil, and contaminate the groundwater. It may be absorbed by plants and thereby enter into the food chain. Ingesting such a chemical can interfere with the immune, neurological, and reproductive human systems.
Plastic pollution can affect the availability of safe drinking water. Microplastics have been found in tap water in a lot of places in the world. Drinking clean water is essential for physical well-being, and when microplastics or chemicals from plastic contaminate water, it puts our health in danger.
The extraction of fossil fuels to produce plastic is an emission-intensive process. It is a contributor to global warming. The production of a plastic water bottle involves refining fossil fuel to extract useful chemicals. This refining process releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Companies that manufacture PET bottles are prone to fire hazards and chemical leaks. There have been notable accidents in Norway, France, and Belgium that polluted the environment and put workers in the hospital.
Incineration works as an alternative disposal option when landfilling of plastic waste is not viable. The fumes from burning plastic waste release carbon dioxide, polyvinyl chloride, dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These are harmful chemicals that put human and environmental health at risk.
The incineration of plastic water bottles produces soot, which settles on plants and soil and contaminates them.
Producing plastic water bottles affects the conservation of nonrenewable resources. About 99% of plastics originate from oil, natural gas, and coal, all unrenewable. If no changes are made, the plastic industry will account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2050.
Manufacturers use over 17 million barrels of oil to meet America’s annual demand for bottled water.
A large amount of oil needed to manufacture single-use plastics like water bottles is wasteful and not at all economically efficient. Bottled water companies are virtually pouring limited resources down the drain. The European plastic water bottle industry alone consumes 4%-6% of its oil and gas resources6.
Furthermore, the energy required to produce plastic bottled water is 5.6-10.2 MJ per liter. It is quite a bit higher than tap water, which requires about 0.005 MJ of energy2. Also, a lot of energy and water resources go into manufacturing a bottle of water. About 6 liters of water is needed to produce 1.2 liters of bottled water.
We may not be able to cancel out bottled water entirely; however, there are ways to make drinking bottled water sustainable. Below are some things that can help our water consumption habits have a positive impact on the environment.
Rather than buy a plastic water bottle every time you get thirsty, consider owning a reusable bottle. You can fill reusable water bottles with tap water from your home or water fountains. Approximately tap water costs $3 per 1,000L, while bottled water costs about $3 per liter.
Drinking tap water is cheaper than bottled water, so it saves you some money.
The belief that bottled water is cleaner than tap water may be what drives many people to choose it. In Australia, bottled water guidelines are lower than that of drinking water. However, the government has rigorous safety measures to ensure municipal tap water is safe. But, If you are concerned that your tap is not providing 100% safe water, get a water filter. A water filter will ensure that your tap produces clean water that is as safe for drinking as bottled water.
Read More: Say No To Plastic Bottles
Recycling is a process that turns waste into new resources, and plastic water bottles have enormous potential. A large percentage of plastic water bottles end up in the trash, although recycling options are available. Only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled3.
In many places, plastic products can be recycled through the curbside recycle bin. However, in America, only 30% of bottled water plastic ends up in the recycle bin1.
Recycling takes advantage of the durability of plastic and ensures resource conservation through material recovery. When waste plastic is recycled, it cuts back on the number of raw materials that go into plastic production. This helps to conserve resources and reduce emissions associated with plastic manufacturing.
Recycling a plastic bottle also prevents it from contributing to the pollution of the environment.
The environmental consequences of plastic water bottles affect everyone—even eco-conscious people who don't drink bottled water. Individuals, organizations, and governments need to increase efforts to educate the public on the downsides of bottled water.
Many countries are working on controlling environmental pollution. They have established policies that reduce plastic production and prohibit excessive packaging. Some countries like Kenya have banned single-use plastics. Kenya made the use of single-use plastics illegal in its territories as of June 2020.
Plastic water bottles may seem useful in everyday life, but the environmental impact they produce is unsustainable. The large amount of plastic water bottles we send to the landfills and oceans has become a burden on our environment.
We must find alternatives to plastic bottled water or increase the rate of plastic bottles that get recycled. We must stop sending several million barrels of oil to the landfill as water bottles.
2013 united states national post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report. Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
Yang, M, Ryu, JH, Jeon, R, Kang, D and Yoo, KY 2009, ‘Effects of bisphenol A on breast cancer and its risk factors’, Archives of Toxicology, vol. 83, pp. 281-5.
|Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law, Science Advances 19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782|
|Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean. Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, Kara Lavender Law. Science, vol. 347, no. 6223, 13 Feb. 2015, pp. 768–771, doi:10.1126/science.1260352|
University of Plymouth. (2015, February 19). Global impact of debris on marine life studied. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 27, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150219101643.htm
Oil consumption. British Plastic Federation (21 May 2019)
Beat plastic pollution. UN Environment.