EarthTalk: The Environmental Consequences Of Plastic Bottles.

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EarthTalk is a weekly installment from E/The Environmental Magazine.


Dear EarthTalk: I know there’s a big debate now as to why we need bottled water at all, but is anyone addressing the incredible waste of plastic bottles by this industry?

The plastic waste spawned by the recent astronomical growth in the bottled water business is significant. Environmentalists especially decry it because the water from our taps is usually as good as if not better quality than what’s inside the bottle (and indeed sometimes bottled water is just tap water). Further, water bottles are not subject to the bottle bill laws that have kept billions of soda containers, made from the exact same petroleum-derived PET plastic packaging, out of our bursting landfills.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a Washington, DC-based non-profit committed to increasing the recycling of beverage containers of all kinds, sales of non-alcohol non-carbonated drinks, bottled water as well as energy and sports drinks, will likely surpass soda sales in the U.S. by 2010. More than seven times as much non-carbonated bottled water is sold annually in the U.S. than just a decade ago.

The fact that more Americans are switching over from unhealthy soda to water is a positive health trend, but reliance on bottled rather than tap water means that the environment is taking a big hit. CRI’s analysis shows that Americans have never recycled as much PET as in recent years. However, the sheer increase in bottled water sales means that even more of the material is going un-recycled than ever before. CRI says that if bottled water were covered under just the 11 state bottle bills currently granting five- to 10-cent refunds on returned soda bottles, the PET wasting rate could drop threefold or more nationally.

Besides being less wasteful, cutting back on the need to manufacture more plastic bottles from non-recycled (virgin) materials would also have a noticeable impact on America’s carbon footprint. CRI estimates that some 18 million barrels of crude oil equivalent were consumed in 2005 to replace the two million tons of PET bottles that were wasted instead of recycled. Some other negative environmental impacts of making more and more PET from virgin petroleum sources include damage to wildlife and marine life, air and water pollution, and greater burdens on already stressed landfills and incinerators.

CRI and others are working to get policymakers at both state and federal levels to mandate increased recycling for water bottles. Oregon is the first state to update its bottle bill, the first in the nation when it was enacted back in 1971, to include a five-cent refund on PET water bottles beginning in January 2009.

And just this past November, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey introduced a bill on Capitol Hill calling for the creation of a federal bottle bill mandating a five-cent refund on all beverage containers, including water bottles. Entitled The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act, the bill is now with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for review, and may come up for a vote this year.

Environmentalists are not optimistic, however, that such a bill can pass, given how influential the beverage industry is in protecting its interests, which include keeping the base price of its products like bottled water as low as possible, regardless of the availability of an after-purchase refund.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 USA; submit it at EarthTalk; or e-mail us. Read past columns at our archives.

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