Bottled water has become ubiquitous in our world, despite the fact that tap water is generally considered safe. Many people choose bottled water because they think it is better and other times, they choose it for convenience. However, when you consider all that goes into making a bottle and its effect on our environment, you may wonder if that convenience is worth it. Let’s take a look at the process from beginning to end to understand the ways bottled water hurts the environment.
1) Plastic Water Bottles Are Made from Fossil Fuels
Single-use plastic water bottles, and all plastics, are made from non-renewable fossil fuels, so let’s start there. The plastic used in water bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is produced using oil.
But it doesn’t stop there. The entire life cycle of water bottles is energy-intensive, from the oil and energy used to make them to the fuel used to transport, store, and dispose of them.
In the US, approximately 76 million barrels of oil are used to make, transport, store, and dispose of water bottles each year. That’s a year’s worth of fuel for 4.3 million cars. Worldwide, the energy used to create water bottles is equal to 450 million barrels of oil a year, or a year’s worth of fuel for 25.5 million cars.
2) Using Water Resources for Bottled Water Harms Local Environments
Most people don’t think about where the water in bottled water comes from. When water is extracted and bottled, its natural source often dries up, which has a detrimental effect on the local environment. For instance, many companies extract water in California, an area prone to droughts. Removing water from an area that already sees a lot of droughts makes droughts more likely to happen.
In addition, most bottled water is sold in areas far from where it is extracted, which keeps local water sources from recovering through the natural water cycle. There are instances of bottled water companies using up so much of the water resources that entire aquifers and lakes run dry. This can change entire ecosystems and habitats.
3) Plastic Bottles Stay in the Environment
Plastic water bottles degrade, but they don’t biodegrade. Here’s the difference. When something biodegrades, it is broken down by being digested by living organisms. Decomposers such as bacteria and fungi go to work, and the object is naturally recycled back into the ecosystem. When a substance degrades, it just breaks down into increasingly smaller, but still remains in the environment.
So what happens to plastic? Through a combination of the sun’s rays, rain, and other environmental factors, plastic is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.
As plastic degrades, it releases toxic chemicals into the environment. But it is not fundamentally changed, and it will always remain plastic. It will stay in the environment, continuing to harm wildlife, and eventually even human life.
4) Plastic Pollution Harms Marine Ecosystems
These days you can find plastic water bottles dotting landscapes and shorelines almost everywhere you go. Considering how many are sold every day, it’s not surprising that the bulk of them are improperly disposed of. Now consider this. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic water bottles are fifth on the list of trash items found during coastline cleanups. This means they make up a significant amount of the plastic pollution in our oceans. Even plastic bottles that begin far from the ocean often end up there, as they are blown around or washed into bodies of water and make their way to the sea.
Birds and fish often mistake plastic items in the ocean for food, and when an animal eats enough plastic, it can clog their digestive systems, causing them to starve. And once eaten, the plastic moves up the food chain and eventually ends up in the fish we eat.
According to the Center for Biodiversity, approximately 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic end up in fish each year. And that’s just in the North Pacific. Here’s another shocking statistic. According to UNESCO, eating plastic causes more than a million seabirds, and one hundred thousand marine mammals to die every year. This means we may end up eating seafood that contains plastic or toxic chemicals from plastic and ultimately suffer adverse health consequences. The plastic water bottles we think are so convenient to use are more harmful to the environment and humans than many people realize.
What Can We Do?
Although the issue may seem daunting, we each have the power to make a difference. What we do now can make a big difference to what we will have to face in the future. Don’t be put off by the size of the challenge, but be motivated by the knowledge that your actions can affect change.
The easiest way to reduce the amount of plastic water bottles clogging our oceans is to stop buying bottled water and other drinks in plastic bottles. Bottled water may be convenient, but it’s not a necessity. If you purchase bottled water because you think it is safer, consider this: the US safety standards for tap water are higher than those for bottled water. Filling a reusable water bottle with filtered tap water is safer and less expensive than buying bottled water, and better for the environment, too.
In addition, you can make sure that any plastic you do use is properly recycled. Another way to help reduce the amount of plastic in the environment is to buy sustainable products, such as sustainable swimwear made out of plastic water bottles. This helps keep water bottles out of landfills and being downcycled. With fewer water bottles in use, less petroleum will need to be taken from the ground, and we will be helping our oceans, our beaches, and our environment.