The Doomed Life Cycle of Bottled Water
The world’s obsession with single-use plastic water bottles has hit catastrophic proportions. While organizations and scientists are straining to calculate exactly how our consumer habits are affecting the health of the globe, some blatantly negative returns on our plastic obsession are in plain sight.
The Ocean Conservancy organization discovered the severity of the problem when in 2016, they set out to clean coastlines across the world during their annual International Coastal Cleanup. The data that came from the litter collection raised alarm around the globe.
The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Report calculated a cleanup of roughly 1.58 million plastic beverage bottles along 14,997 miles of coastline. If you stacked all these plastic bottles, you would have a structure 372 times higher than the tallest building in the world, The Burj Khalifa in Dubai (828 meters).
Plastic bottle pollution is occurring on a mass scale, poisoning oceans and harming wildlife around the world. And this is without exploring the impact of microplastics called nurdles. We’ll go into depth on those later.
For now, let’s examine the life cycle of a plastic bottle of water we would purchase at a convenience store. Is it doomed from the start? We’ll let you decide.
The Birth of Bottled Water
The Wasteful Production of Plastic Bottled Water
So, what’s the big deal with our plastic bottle addiction? For starters, to produce plastic and distribute it around the world, these companies need oil. In fact, 45 million barrels of oil per year are needed to produce bottled water for Americans alone. That’s more than 1 trillion gallons of oil.
What about the water itself? The production of a single-liter bottle takes 2 liters of water. Add another liter to fill the bottle and you’re at a 3:1 liter ratio on water used to fill just one bottle.
Is Bottled Water the Same as Tap Water?
Some bottled water brands will create an elaborate, fictional narrative about where their water comes from as a mask to cover the truth. They may lead you to believe their water starts in a cloud, gets filtered through volcanic rock that’s been untouched by mankind and then is bottled in its purest state.
The EPA tells us a different story about bottled water, “All our drinking water comes from similar sources, either from sources we can see, such as rivers and lakes, or from sources we can’t see, such as underground aquifers.” In fact, Food & Water Watch tells us 64% of bottled water comes from municipal tap water — the same source that delivers water to your sink at home.
The other 30 percent of bottled water comes from common filtration methods, in addition to receiving water from a similar ground source as tap water. Reverse osmosis, distillation and ozonation are a few of the techniques used. These methods aren’t exclusive to bottled water companies. People can actually perform these filtration techniques with their water, too.
Bottled water companies have come under fire for purchasing land and extracting their own water from the environment. Nestle found themselves in hot water after taking 36 million gallons from a national forest in California while the state was battling a historic drought.
Plastic Bottled Water’s Single-Use Purpose
When we walk into a store ahead of a big road trip, we understand the bottle of water we’re grabbing is not the best economic decision for our bank accounts. But we do it for the convenience. And that convenience could be costing us 2,000 times more than just using our municipal tap water at home.
Now imagine each individual in the United States, Canada and Mexico buying one plastic bottle of water in a single day. That’s how much is purchased around the world each day. That’s 500 million single-use plastic bottles purchased worldwide, every 24 hours.
What About Recycling?
While the Earth Day Network tells us 23% of single-use plastic water bottles are recycled, what becomes of the plastic? According to a Guardian investigation, many types of plastic aren’t being recycled, they are placed in a landfill, burned or stockpiled.
There are several reasons for this. About half of the plastic waste created in America is exported to foreign markets for recycling — mainly, China. The waste that isn’t exported can’t be processed in America efficiently to meet the demands of the amount of recycling collects because of the lack of processing plants. These plants are privately owned and expensive to run. Owning a recycling process plant is simply not good business, therefore there aren’t enough to send our recycling to.
Instead, our plastic waste is recycled into purgatory. It isn’t broken down at a sufficient rate, so it sits, lingering in warehouses and landfills.
The Lingering Death of Water Bottles
So where does the plastic go that isn’t recycled? The same place where our trash goes. But instead of degrading away, plastic tends to linger. According to The Balance, it takes 6 months for an orange peel to degrade and 5 years for a milk carton. How long does it take a plastic bottle to degrade? 450 years.
The longer plastic water bottles are in landfills, the likelier they are to end up in the ocean. The World Count calculates that anywhere from 60-80% of marine trash is plastic. How much plastic is that exactly? Plastic Oceans International estimates 8 million tons of plastic finds the ocean each year.
Effects of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life
Birds are attracted to bright and reflective objects because they believe it’s food. Pieces of plastic trigger the attention of birds which leads to startling facts like 40% of seabirds have ingested plastic.
What scientists have found in these birds are what we call nurdles — small pellets of plastic used to manufacture plastic products. Nurdles appear during the decomposition process of plastic and they spread in the water and are carried across the globe by currents. Some wash up on shore and can be found on numerous beaches.
Whether nurdles are on land or in the sea, animals are consuming this type of plastic. According to National Geographic, 700 species of marine animals have eaten or become entangled in plastic.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: A Floating Plastic Graveyard
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a concentrated area in the Pacific Ocean where great sums of garbage, including plastic, has collected. The patch consists of multiple gyres, which is a system of ocean currents. These currents have brought together trash in the ocean to create a patch twice the size of Texas. However, this isn’t a floating island of trash, the Discovery Channel’s “The Swim” explains it as more of a smog of microplastic particles.
Single-use plastic packaging is the number one culprit for the creation of this giant field of ocean pollution. Proving a bottled water’s lifecycle is doomed to end by contributing to an environmental crisis.
Scientists estimate by 2050, there could be as much fish as plastic in the ocean. And we’re only contributing to the plastic crisis everytime we spend $1.99 on a liter of plastic-encased water.
Better, eco-friendly options are available when it comes to safe and clean drinking water. It up to us individually to educate ourselves and help decrease the size of our global plastic footprint.