Plastic bottles are convenient. But their convenience and proliferation in the market blinds us to the implications inherent in their production, short-lived usage, and the long-term waste they become.
Americans alone pile 29 billion bottles per year on the Earth’s surface. Per year, this requires 17 million barrels of crude oil for production. Put another way, it’s enough oil to drive 1 million vehicles for 12 months (1). Put yet another way, if you filled a water bottle a quarter of the way up with oil, it would be about equivalent to the amount of oil needed to produce that same bottle (2). And that is only for the production of plastic. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that the total energy used to pump, process, transport and refrigerate bottled water (or any other bottled drink) is over 50 million barrels of oil annually (4). Ultimately, this results in thousands of tons of carbon dioxide pollution, not to mention the massive waste of time and capital.
After a bottle is consumed, the plastic itself will take hundreds of years to decompose. That is unless it is incinerated—then there is the problem of toxic byproducts, such as chlorine gas and heavy metals being released into the atmosphere (5).
Aside from the cost of producing, distributing and buying plastic bottles, the United States wastes an enormous amount of energy and money by only recycling 16% of them. This is by considering that recycling one plastic bottle can save enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for six hours. As for the other 84% or 24.3 billion bottles, they are destined for our landfills, or worse, our rivers, lakes, and oceans; (3) Note: The Europe-sized Great Pacific Garbage Patch being a regular topic of environmental discourse.
Despite the fact that bottled water can cost anywhere from 240 to 10,000 times more than tap water, which is brought into your home for pennies a gallon, some argue that bottled water tastes better and is healthier than water from the tap. Tastes better? Maybe in some cases, but in the United States, local governments have to make sure water from the faucet is safe (5). In fact, a four-year study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that while most bottled water is safe to drink, there are areas of concern. Roughly 22% of the water tested contained contaminant levels that exceeded strict state health limits. One study even found that hormone-disrupting phthalates had leached into bottled water that had been stored for 10 weeks (3).
So next time you feel tempted to go out and pick up a quick bottle of water or soda, think about carrying a refillable steel container, or drinking from a glass at home. Recycling helps—bottles can be turned into items like carpeting or fleece clothing—but not purchasing them in the first place is by far the best option.
Imagine the graphic above reproduced 54.4 million times.
Only then would it accurately represent the volume of bottles consumed per year in the U.S.
2: “National Geographic”; Drinking Water: Bottled or From the Tap?; Catherine Clarke Fox; 2011
3: Natural Resources Defense Council; Bottled Water; 2008
4: Earth Policy Institute; Bottled Water: Pouring Resources Down the Drain; Emily Arnold and Janet Larsen; February 2006