How bad, exactly, are the effects of plastic water bottles?
The idea that plastic water bottles are damaging, wasteful—or downright immoral—is not news. In fact, warnings of the effect of single-use plastics on ocean life have been voiced for decades, from early campaigns against bottled water to anti-plastic shopping bag activism in the 1990s.
The most generally accurate thing we can say about ocean conditions is that they’re changing rapidly. An article from the Ocean Health Index puts it this way: oceans don’t get sick or die, in the sense that the ‘health’ of the ocean is always a comparison drawn between two points in time—but they do change in ways that can spell disaster for many ocean-dwelling species and ecosystems. A 2018 study by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on the northern Atlantic found a turbulent picture, with a loss in sea ice accompanying rise in invasive species. Other species traditionally found in the area are struggling to persist, mirroring issues in many of the world’s major ocean habitats.
The changes in our oceans are certainly not all the fault of plastic bottles. Pesticides and nutrients used in agriculture find their way to deep waters through ground runoff, rivers, and coastal estuaries. These chemicals often cause oxygen depletion, killing marine plants at the base of the food chain. Factories and heavy industries are often able to exploit loopholes or a lack of regulation to dispose of raw waste and sewage directly into the ocean. In fact, much of the global shift to a westernized lifestyle seems directly opposite to the needs of ocean life.
What’s the role of plastic in general? While researchers are still revealing the extent of plastic infiltration into the global ecosystem (more on that below), we do know that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic floating in the sea while you’re reading this. Plastic is also the most prevalent type of debris found in the Great Lakes.
Disposable plastic products, including bottles, are usually made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which takes around 400 years to decompose if left unrecycled. Bearing in mind that those four centuries are effectively reset with every day of littering, as well as the fact that most plastic not in landfills ends its life in the ocean, and the scale of the issue quickly emerges.
Of all types of ocean litter, plastic bottles are major offenders. Marine studies put plastic bags, bottles, packaging, and fishing lines as the most common sources of global plastic marine pollution. Beach studies identify cigarette butts, drinks bottles, straws, and coffee stirrers as the most frequent categories of litter. Of course, not all bottles found on beaches were produced to hold water, but a large number were.
A 2017 study into plastic pollution in freshwater ecosystems in South America found that plastic bottles were the number one category of litter items. Researchers found an equivalent of over one hundred bottles per kilometer—just one of many terrifying ways to encapsulate our rising plastic bottle consumption and littering issue. According to research collated in 2017 by The Guardian, we’re now buying one million plastic bottles per minute, largely propelled by rises in Chinese and Asia-Pacific markets.
What are they? Microplastics are small pieces of plastic. Specifically, they’re less than five millimeters long and come from degrading plastic materials. We currently don’t know the propensity of microplastics in the environment, though so far, we’re pretty much finding them wherever we look for them.
Researchers separate plastic pollution into several categories. Primarily, these are: macro, mesa, meta, and micro (though the field is so new that definitions are still being standardized.)
- Macroplastics are whole or partial plastic products turned to litter. Over time, they might degrade into smaller forms of plastic.
- Mesoplastics are large plastic particles between 5–10 millimeters.
- Microplastics are plastics between 0.001 and five millimeters in diameter. Primary microplastics are whole particles, often from cosmetics, clothing, and fishing nets. Secondary microplastics are particles resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles.
- Nanoplastics are microscopic plastic particles.
Where are they, and what can they do to us? Microplastics have been found across the food chain, in grocery store goods, and even in drinking water. It’s estimated that 50 percent of Northeast Atlantic coastal fish contain microplastics, and to complicate things further, microplastics are binding with other chemicals in the ocean, forming a hidden layer of pollution. Because many wastewater treatment plants are not currently designed to catch them, microplastics are also building up in areas with large population densities.
Right now, there’s little understanding of the possible toxicological effects of microplastics and nanoplastics in humans. In 2019, the journal Nature published a call to researchers to invest more time into nano-plastic research. As the article says, “instead of being simply stuck in the guts of living organisms, nanoplastic can penetrate tissues much more easily than larger specimens.” Whether they penetrate the human body, we don’t yet know—although it’s probable that nanoplastics are regularly inhaled or ingested in contaminated food and water.
What can microplastics do to the environment? We’re still in the middle of discovering the extent to which plastic fibers have infiltrated the world around us. Ocean drift effectively spreads plastic of all types across the globe. In 1992, for example, a shipment of bath toys from china crashed, spilling 29,000 toy ducks into the pacific. Over 19,000 have been detected in South America, and in 2007, after trips to Hawaii and the Antarctic, the first ducks appeared on beaches in the UK.
A 2017 river study surveyed the entire Hudson looking for microfibers in surface water. They found plastic particles “throughout the length of the Hudson River, from the alpine region to New York City.” Of course, anything that finds its way into the Hudson will end up in the Atlantic, meaning that the river may be dumping up to 300 million microfibers into the ocean per day.
How much of this micro-pollution is contributed by plastic bottles? It’s hard to say. With plastic bottles being considered a major polluter on the macro level, it stands to reason that the degradation of bottles makes them a major contributor on the micro-level, too. Research from the University of Newcastle, Australia, is suggesting that microplastics are released simply by opening a plastic bottle, meaning that these products can contribute to plastic pollution even if they’re recycled. Regardless, it’s thought that drinkers of bottled water are consuming an additional 90,000 plastic particles annually compared to those who consume only tap water.
The bottled water industry
What about bottle production itself? Again, there’s not really any good news here. The standard production methods for bottled water require large amounts of energy (often derived from fossil-fuels) as well as more water than is sold in the final product. Any large factory’s process chemicals will release toxins into the surrounding environment, posing issues for the people and wildlife living in close proximity. It’s estimated that, in 2007, the US bottled water industry consumed an energy equivalent of at least 32 million barrels of oil.
Are there ANY upsides? All bottled water containers are 100 percent recyclable, and many of them are made from recycled plastics in the first place. This is good! (He says, desperately). This week, Nestle announced that three of its brands—Ozarka, Deer Park, and Zephyrhills—will now be made from 100 percent recycled plastic. In fact, there are growing signs that a paper bottle revolution might be around the corner. Companies such as Johnnie Walker and Carlsberg have developed prototype models, while conscious water brand Just Water aims to capture those consumers already heading to the drinks chiller with a bottle made from 53 percent recycled paper. Until more major movements occur, however, gestures such as these seem to pale in comparison with the reality of how plastic bottles actually end their useful lives.
Really, the only genuinely beneficial uses for disposable water bottles appear to be when traveling in areas without access to water, or when unable to trust in the safety or quality of your tap supply. Here, it can be argued that the portability, protection, and resilience of plastic makes the environmental harms worthwhile. Still, there are almost always better alternatives for both of these use-cases. A canteen or hydration bladder is a better travel companion. And for home use, we should all be installing water filters—or at a minimum, using much larger multi-gallon plastic jugs.
Macro, micro, and nano plastics (source: Planetexperts.)
Nestle’s arguments in favor of plastic water bottles meeting ‘necessary needs’ (source: Nestle Waters.)
Why are some people still buying disposable water bottles?
So if those are the well known, harmful effects of supporting the bottled water industry, why do so many people continue to spend their money on these products? A Guardian article on the topic notes that 2018-19 was a record-breaking 55o million-pound year for the UK water industry. The same year in the US, approximately 13.85 billion gallons of bottled water was drunk—the highest volume ever consumed in the country.
Thanks to COVID-19 hoarding, 2020 has shown no letup in bottled water consumption. According to consumer reports, sales have increased 57 percent in March, year on year.
Clever marketing, or propaganda?
Almost all bottled water marketing campaigns hammer home the same roster of wellness claims. Brands like to tell us that bottled water is (a) recyclable, (b) better tasting, (c) cooler, (d) more natural, and (e) may be healthier than tap water in some mysterious way.
Each of these claims is potentially true—but they are also statements of pretty minor significance. (a) Is simply a fact about PET plastic. (b) and (c) are matters of opinion but, let’s be real, any differences in taste or extra style points are negligible. (d) Is an interesting claim for its psychological appeal—is water more ‘natural’ because it’s been filtered through sediment rock rather than a Brita filter? And (e) neglects the fact that most tap water is already perfectly healthy.
So why the power of these messages? Partly, it’s because they go mostly unchallenged. Manufacturers are keen to ensure their products are portrayed as ‘recyclable’ rather than ‘single-use’, despite the vast majority of plastic bottles only seeing one outing as a container. Marketing departments are also experts at keeping the conversation away from unwinnable topics, such as the long term unsustainability of disposable plastics. In addition, public water suppliers rarely choose to spend resources on counter-advertising that promotes their own merits (although they sometimes do).
But, as the International Bottled Water Association is quick to point out, the success of the bottled water “simply cannot be attributed to costly advertising and marketing campaigns.” The truth is that bottled water continues to draw in consumers through sheer convenience. Long term contracts ensure that gas stations and corner stores are always stocked up with tantalizing supplies, while vending machines in schools, hospitals, parks, and just about anywhere you care to look mean that carrying your own water supply is unnecessary (at least, in terms of hydration). Convenience is also assured by careful pricing, charging little-enough to make buying a bottle a thoughtless action. While many states have container deposit laws that place a premium on carbonated beverages, these regulations don’t always apply to bottled water, according to this Public Integrity article.
All of which is a lot of effort to protect a product that doesn’t really hold up. While Fiji and Voss are at least offering mineral waters from foreign lands, other brands are simply bottling municipal tap supplies and passing it through one or two filtration processes, before selling it for an inflated price. Others charge premiums for vague wellness claims such as reduced acidity, which are hard to pin down, let alone verify.
As a result, Harvard Engineering found that bottled water is about 3,000 percent more expensive per gallon than the average cost of tap water. Notwithstanding the fact that home water filters provide practically all of bottled water’s taste and purity pros without any of the plastic pollution cons. Even basic pitcher-style or refrigerator filters can improve flavor, remove contaminants (often still present in water bottles), and prevent the continuing spread of those worrying microplastics.
Filters seem like a no brainer, which makes you wonder why more of us aren’t choosing to use them, especially given the overwhelming environmental case water filters, beyond their countless personal benefits.
Bottled water consumption worldwide from 2007 to 2017 (source: Statista.)
Is a change in public opinion on the horizon?
There are reasons to be optimistic. In the end, environmental and global health revolutions often win out thanks to waves of public momentum that eventually break through institutional barriers. Take the original Earth Day, for example. Thanks to the persistence and coordination of green activists, public concern was consolidated into 1970’s Earth Day, which helped push then-president Richard Nixon to form the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Along with a host of other first-of-their-kind environmental laws, there’s a direct line between Earth Day and the fact that factories can no longer legally dump toxic waste into a nearby stream.
Arguably, the same stirrings are beginning to happen with bottles and other disposable plastics. A growing number of companies have been pressured (directly or indirectly) into making adaptations to their plastic usage and packaging—Starbucks’ ditching of plastic straws along with Dasaini’s move to aluminum cans being two high-profile examples. Even Fiji Water is announcing new packaging options. Do these changes count as gestures rather than a systemic shift in perspective? Maybe. But they should still have net positive effects on plastic bottle and beverage pollution.
What can you do to boost these signals? You could support the companies you think are making valid, positive changes. You could also lend your voice to the many vital movements and organizations targeting greener consumption, such as those on this running list by Nat Geo. Better than both of those choices, though, is switching from disposable bottles to a water filter and reusable container. You’ll be making a commitment to saving yourself money in the long term, feeling good about your impact, and never touching a plastic water bottle unless there’s literally no better option.
If you need another reason, I’ll leave you with this image of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by The Ocean Cleanup. The so-called plastic vortex creates huge trash piles that occur due to ocean currents of the Subtropical Convergence Zone. These exist within an area dense with microplastics, thought to be larger than the state of Texas, which contains an estimated 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world.
Zoom in and count the plastic bottles: