Water is as essential to humans as air. Having clean drinkable water available at all times, wherever we are, is vital. For this reason, the most used container is the plastic bottle. The world buys a million plastic bottles every minute6. People who do not have drinkable water running in their home pipes often turn to one option; bottled water.
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 fuels. Coal, natural gas, and crude oil are the primary materials for making plastic.
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 soda bottles from the same 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.
Over the past years, global plastic production has increased thanks to demand from the growing population. 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.
Plastic water bottles may be useful and cheap but they have environmental consequences. From production to disposal, bottled water production affects climate change, humans, and wildlife. We discuss some of the devastating impacts and effects of plastic water bottle pollution 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 yearly, killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals annually. The Container Recycling Institute found that 86% of plastic water bottles consumed in the United States end up in the trash.
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 debris.
The floating microplastics also promote the spread of harmful marine bacteria and invasive organisms, disrupting the marine ecosystem's stability.
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 many 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 can fill up quickly if we continue to send large volumes of non-biodegradable items like plastic bottles there.
Perhaps the worst thing about plastic pollution on land is the tendency of waste plastic to migrate to the ocean.
When we eat fish, microplastics are swallowed and introduced into the human food chain. 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, 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 plastic chemicals contaminate water, our health is 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 we don't change, 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 resources5.
Furthermore, the energy required to produce plastic bottled water is 5.6-10.2 MJ per liter. It is quite a bit higher than necessary to produce 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 are needed to produce 1.2 liters of bottled water.
We may not be able to cancel out bottled water entirely or all the bad things about plastic; however, there are ways to make drinking bottled water sustainable. Below are some things that can help our water consumption habits positively impact the environment.
Consider owning a reusable bottle rather than buying a plastic water bottle every time you get thirsty. You can fill a reusable water bottle 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, saving you some money.
Further, several studies and blind taste tests have indicated people cannot distinguish between bottled and tap water in terms of taste3.
The belief that bottled water is cleaner than tap water may drive many people to choose it. In Australia, bottled water guidelines are lower than that for 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 recycled4.
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 recyclable 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.
When we recycle plastic bottles we also prevent them from contributing to pollution, where they leach harmful chemicals into 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 using single-use plastics illegal in its territories as of June 2020.
Bottleless water systems and refill stations have become more popular as councils, governments, and even festivals have recognized we don't need all those plastic bottles.
Plastic water bottles, much like the ubiquitous plastic bag, may seem useful in everyday life, but the environmental impact they produce is unsustainable. The large amount of plastic water bottles we send to 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 landfills 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.
Wells DL. The Identification and Perception of Bottled Water. Perception. 2005;34(10):1291-1292. doi:10.1068/p5267
|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|
Oil consumption. British Plastic Federation (21 May 2019)
Beat plastic pollution. UN Environment.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.