Plastic bottles offer us a simple and convenient solution that allows us to drink on the move and store many other types of liquids. However, over the decades, our reliance on plastic bottles has contributed to a global problem with plastic waste. Much of it down to growing demand, the single-use nature of much of our plastic consumption and the negative environmental impacts5. So, why should we say no to plastic bottles?
We are failing to recycle millions of tons each year. Plastic bottles can find their way into our oceans and landfill sites. Once there they can destroy natural habitats and negatively impact a range of life on land and sea. Once in landfill plastic bottles not only take 100s of years to break down but also leech a plethora of harmful chemicals10. And the sight of plastic bottles washed up on our shores is not one most would choose.
Saying no to plastic bottles is one small way we can all make a difference to the harm disposable single-use plastics cause. And if we all said no to plastic bottles we could together make a huge dent in our global demand for plastic produced from our finite oil reserves and their resulting pollution once disposed of.
We should all, by now, be aware of the problem of plastic waste. Plastic packaging is durable, versatile and flexible but the one characteristic that really lets it down is that it takes centuries to degrade. Single-use plastic bottles are everywhere. And many of them are set to stay with us for many years longer than our lifespans.
Supermarket and shop aisles are full of them. Many of us stock our fridges, kitchen and bathroom cupboards full of them. Either aware of the problem but yet to act, or unwilling or unable as yet to shift away from plastic bottles. For shifts do require viable alternatives.
Just take a look at some of the facts:
While plastic bottles are used for many reasons, it is the plastic water bottle industry that is causing the most environmental damage. Sales of water in plastic bottles in the UK alone have reached £558.4m over the past 12 months. This is an increase of 7% when we compare it to the previous year. This equates to 2.2 billion litres of bottled water6.
Meanwhile, plastic bottles and bottle caps sit in 3rd and 4th place as the most collected plastic waste items from our beaches.
Recently in countries like the UK, we have targeted the problem of plastic bags with supermarkets now charging at least 5p should we not bring our own. Next up we must tackle a wider range of single-use plastic with plastic bottles clearly in our sights.
To produce plastic bottles, we have to utilise oil. So, plastic bottles also draw on a finite natural resource. Along with this, the process of retrieving oil also has other environmental impacts associated with the drilling and production required to acquire oil, the raw material for producing plastic bottles. Such as leached chemicals and producing CO2 throughout drilling, transportation and use. And all these activities disturb natural habitats in some measure.
A lot of effort and oil goes into making one plastic bottle. A petroleum derivative known as polyethylene terephthalate is used to manufacture most plastic bottles. In fact, to get an idea of how much oil is required, you could fill each plastic bottle by a third with oil. That is how much is used to produce each one. It also takes triple the amount of water to make a plastic water bottle than it does to fill it14.
And we’re using a lot of oil. To give you an idea of how much oil the US uses, it was once the largest exporter of oil. Now it is the largest importer, importing more than 2 million barrels per day. One of the reasons for this increase is the growth in the production of plastics of which single-use plastic bottles are a big part. Research suggests that the production of new plastics will require 20% of our oil production within 35 years7.
The manufacturing process also generates CO2 emissions. In fact, the majority of the carbon footprint of plastic occurs during production11 (as opposed to later in its lifecycle when its, ideally, recycled). This feeds into the problem of rising temperatures and sea levels as well as further damaging natural environments and wildlife.
Our ignorance and lack of understanding have seen us pollute our environment with plastic bottles. Instead of recycling, when we dispose of plastic bottles they regularly end up in landfill. When they get disposed of incorrectly many find their way into the ocean.
You won’t be alone in recognising discarded plastic bottles in gutters, on our beaches, in nature. In fact, of all plastic produced, a staggering 9 per cent actually gets recycled12.
And if we don’t recycle plastic we rely on other means for it to come to the end of its useful life. A lot of the plastic we discard that is not recycled is shipped to other countries for disposal. In the UK we only process around a third of our own plastic waste13. Once shipped offshore, it's harder to track, much is dumped or incinerated. In turn, causing more pollution.
Either in landfill or our environment, for a plastic bottle to completely degrade, it can take centuries. As much as 1,000 years in some cases. And even then it degrades into smaller plastic particles or microplastics. Therefore, every single plastic bottle incorrectly disposed of in the environment still exists somewhere in the world. Plastic will always be plastic and can never change into another form.
As plastic breaks down, it releases harmful chemicals. These can then work their way into the soil and water causing problems to our health.
What’s more, our health is also linked to the oceans. This is the place where a large number of plastic bottles end up. Marine plants produce more than 70% of the oxygen that we breathe. However, plastic bottles that make their way into the ocean are consumed by marine life. Some of this marine life form part of the human food chain.
Plastic bottles also contain a chemical known as Bisphenol A or BPA. This is a chemical that we use to harden the plastic and make it clear. However, BPA is a known endocrine disruptor1. As a result, many health professionals now consider it to be a risk to human health.
A wide range of problems such as cancer, fertility reduction and defects in babies have been linked to BPA. What is also a concern is the fact that 96% of pregnant women have been found to have BPA in their bodies3.
The concerns do not stop with BPA. Plastic bottles also contain phthalates. This chemical gives plastic an element of flexibility. However, like BPA, it is also an endocrine disruptor. As a result, there is a link to a reduction in sperm count, tumours and even gender development problems.
Marine life is suffering as a result of the amount of plastic that enters the ocean8. Plastic bottle tops are known to end up on the sea bed. However, what is more concerning is that they are also being found inside dead species.
These animals consume them, mistaking them for food. Plastic bottles and bottle tops can clog up the stomach and intestines and birds are choking on them.
To gain an understanding of how much plastic is in the ocean, we only need to look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
At 1.6 million square kilometres in size, it is three times the size of France. However, we estimate that 1.8 trillion separate pieces of plastic can be found here4. This is perhaps the most visible indication that plastic in the ocean is an issue. It proves just why we should think about going plastic-free.
First and foremost, we need to reduce. We don’t need plastic bottles, especially with eco-friendly alternatives available. Instead of purchasing a bottle of water, we should refill reusable bottles and use water fountains.
Bottled water is a significant contributor to the problem. However, many believe that bottled water is better for us, but that is not necessarily the case. Studies have found that bottled water is no safer than tap water9.
At the home or the office just go old fashioned and fill a glass from the tap. Of course, we’re not saying that we don’t deserve a fruit drink or bubbly pop from time to time. Where possible choose them in cardboard or cans. Of course, these too need properly recycling.
Sometimes a simple switch can do the trick, using bar soap rather than shower gel in plastic bottles. Buying washing powder in cartons rather than liquid in bottles.
Finally, recycling is vital. Realistically there is sometimes no current easy alternative to plastic bottles. When you do need them to ensure they are recycled as best they can be in your area. Ultimately if there’s vastly less plastic we don’t need to consume needing recycling locally there’s also a chance we can reduce our need to ship our plastic waste problem to someone else.
Pick up one of these reusable bottles on amazon, and you can take a small step to reduce your plastic use:
It is impossible for us to continue to use plastic bottles in the way that we have. We should now make a conscious effort to reduce plastic bottle use. In turn, we should each make the switch to reusable bottles.
For too long we have been seeking convenience. For that, we are now paying the price. As retailers sell drinks and other liquids in plastic bottles, it has meant that our environment is edging closer to breaking point.
Our lack of care and concern has meant that many of us have never thought about the impact. Many have never thought about where plastic bottles go. All of this has caused plastic pollution on a scale that will take decades or longer to put right.
It is going to take a combined effort. Manufacturers have to take responsibility. They have to seek alternative products that have less of an impact on the environment. When you take a look at plastic straws, already people are making the switch to eco-friendly alternatives. We have to find a sustainable and mass-market solution to plastic bottles too.
Maybe there is a requirement to introduce a charge that is similar to that of the bag charge. However, there is no guarantee that this will solve the problem.
Consumers therefore also have to do their bit. It is no longer reasonable or acceptable to remove all responsibility. Therefore, consumers should make the effort to think about their actions. They need to ask questions such as:
There are many questions but they all have answers. These answers could begin to point us towards a solution.
|Endocrine disruptors in bottled mineral water: total estrogenic burden and migration from plastic bottles. Wagner, M. & Oehlmann, J. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2009) 16: 278. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-009-0107-7|
|Ingested Micronizing Plastic Particle Compositions and Size Distributions within Stranded Post-Hatchling Sea Turtles. Evan M. White, Samantha Clark, Charles A. Manire, Benjamin Crawford, Shunli Wang, Jason Locklin, Branson W. Ritchie.. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02776|
|Tessie Paulose, Lucia Speroni, Carlos Sonnenschein, Ana M. Soto, Estrogens in the wrong place at the wrong time: Fetal BPA exposure and mammary cancer, Reproductive Toxicology, Volume 54, 2015, Pages 58-65, ISSN 0890-6238, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.reprotox.2014.09.012|
|Y. Zhang et al., "Reduce the Plastic Debris: A Model Research on the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch ", Advanced Materials Research, Vols. 113-116, pp. 59-63, 2010|
|Thompson Richard C., Moore Charles J., vom Saal Frederick S. and Swan Shanna H. Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends. 364Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0053|
|Curb The Thirst. Efficacy of Bottled Water Bans in Reducing Plastic Waste. Elizabeth Mary D'Alturi. Elements. Spring 2017.|
|The New Plastics Economy - Rethinking the future of plastics. World Economic Forum. January 2016.|
|S.C. Gall, R.C. Thompson, The impact of debris on marine life, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 92, Issues 1–2, 2015, Pages 170-179, ISSN 0025-326X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.12.041|
|Azoulay, A. , Garzon, P. and Eisenberg, M. J. (2001), Comparison of the Mineral Content of Tap Water and Bottled Waters. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 16: 168-175. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2001.04189.x|
|Swift, G. (2015). Degradable Polymers and Plastics in Landfill Sites. In Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Technology, (Ed.). doi:10.1002/0471440264.pst457.pub2|
|Aaron Dormer, Donal P. Finn, Patrick Ward, John Cullen, Carbon footprint analysis in plastics manufacturing, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 51, 2013, Pages 133-141, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.01.014|
|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|
|National Packaging Waste Database. Environment Agency.|
|Water Use Benchmarking Study: Executive Summary Prepared for International Bottled Water Association October 21, 2013 Antea Group|