Thank you for checking back in with this week’s continuation of our “Say No to Bottled Water” blogs series. This week’s Reason #3 is so immense that it deserves its very own blog solely unto itself. We hope you learn something valuable here and be sure to share this so others discover the truth behind the convenience.
The first aspect of the intense environmental impact of bottled water is the production of it and all that goes into it. Then, once it’s produced and consumed by us, where it ends up at adds a whole other dimension.
In 2017, the US produced 35.4 million tons of plastic. Of that, 77% ended up in landfills and only 8% was recycled.
The recycling rate is a good deal higher when it comes to PET bottles and jars (which is one of the main materials used for bottled water) at 29%. However that still means that of every ten bottles of water you and your family consume, only 3 get recycled. The rest end up in a landfill where they never go away and just break down into smaller pieces, that then attract those PBT chemicals mentioned earlier – which get into our waterways, contaminate our soil, sickening the animals and plants that we then eat.
One of the ways in which we’ve tried to innovate management of this problem is something called waste-to-energy technology where we essentially burn the plastic for fuel. We do this for about 12 percent of our plastic here in the U.S. The problem is, this process can release dioxins, acid gases and heavy metals into the air. Some experts lobby fiercely against this technology, saying we’re simply trading one type of pollution for another.
And then there’s the stuff that ends up in the ocean. According to the Ocean Conservancy, “Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic flows into the ocean every year, most from mismanaged waste streams on land.”
Take, for example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, whose volume of garbage equates to about the same weight as 500 Jumbo Jets and covers a surface area that’s two times the size of the state of Texas. It’s estimated (conservatively, I might add) that there’s about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating in this patch, which The Ocean Cleanup describes as “a plastic count that is equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world.”
And we’ve just covered where plastic ends up. We haven’t even touched on the environmental impact of its genesis.
Bottled water, it turns out, is an energy-hungry product. First of all, energy is needed to find the water source, capture it, and send it to the bottling plant. Then, once there, energy is needed to cool the water, package it and transport it to all us happy-go-lucky, and highly convenienced consumers.
While there’s a bunch of factors that impact the true cost of all of this, like the distance of the consumer to the water source and the water source to the bottling plant, as well as the type of packaging materials used, etc – one group, the Pacific Institute, did a very detailed assessment that spanned several years on only two facets of this energy drain: (1) the making of the plastic materials themselves and (2) the formation of that plastic into the bottles we actually use here in the US. They found that for these two tiny variables alone, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic that made up the bottled water supply that Americans consumed in a year. The researchers of the Pacific Institute put it in perspective when they write that that amount is approximately “enough energy to fuel more than 1 million American cars and light trucks for a year.”
Remember PET or Polyethylene terephthalate, one of the fun chemicals I mentioned plastic is composed of in part one of this blog series? Turns out it is produced from fossil fuels – petroleum and natural gas primarily, though it also uses several other types of energy as well.
Brace yourself, I’m going to throw a series of numbers at ya: since the mid-2000’s we produce approximately one million metric tons of PET in a year specifically for bottled water. The European plastics manufacturing industry found that producing one ton of PET resin requires 103,000 MJ of energy, which includes the energy of transporting the resin and then turning it into bottles.
That means one million tons of PET, like that which we use in a year, requires roughly 100 billion MJ of energy. One barrel of oil contains around 6000 MJ, so producing those bottles requires 17 million barrels of oil. And as previously mentioned, that’s the same amount of energy used up by one million American cars running for a year. Math is fun, isn’t it? Maybe a little sobering in this case.
And remember, this number doesn’t even include the energy needed to then pump the water, process it, transfer it and refrigerate it. By some estimates that I looked up, we use approximately an additional 50 million barrels of oil to accomplish that feat.
And all this for what? For a resource that we are blessed to have available to us for free in this country. A resource that city services and companies like ours endeavor to make safe and available for you with a fraction of the cost, when all’s said and done.
Are the practices of this seemingly simple product really in alignment with our values as a culture? Especially here in Idaho, where we have a smaller community and understand the value of the Earth’s natural splendor and abundance. I would think not, but we all have to make that decision for ourselves. We hope this blog and the others still yet to come helps inform that decision a little more towards the side of long term sustainability.