Plastic Bottles are nasty little things, that pollute the enrivonment across their full lifecycle.
- The production uses extensive resources, and emits harmful chemicals and greenhouse gases
- The usage emits microplastics and chemicals into drinking water that harms human health
- The disposal is responsible for a majority of marine wildlife deaths and causes significant air pollution
The extent to which plastic bottles actually harm our planet will blow your mind.
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Environmental Pollution is The Challenge of Our Century
Pollution is everywhere. In our air, in our water, in our soil.
What sounds melodramatic and exaggerated has become the reality of our lifetime.
Environmental pollution has emerged as one one of the most pressing challenges of this century and we are risking to lose the race against time.
And it is not an issue that only affects the environment, it affects each and every one of us individually, as we look opportunities to prevent pollution in our daily lives.
In our new series "How Do ... Contribute to Pollution", we explore everyday items and the role they play in the big theme of pollution.
Today: Plastic Water Bottles.
Plastic Bottles in Numbers
Let's begin our journey with some eye-opening stats that may blow your mind:
First up, a whopping 600 billion plastic bottles are used globally each year (29 billion in the US alone).
To put that number into perspective: if you'd start counting now with a perfect rythm and one number per second, it would take you 19 million years to count to 600 billion.
That means every single day, we're guzzling down 1.6 billion bottles - enough to circle the Earth multiple times, and if you break it down even further, that's 1.1 million bottles being used every single minute!
But wait, there's more to this. Between 2004 and 2021, the consumption and production of plastic bottles actually doubled!
Driven by the oil and gas lobby, which is looking for alternative sales channels for their crude oil and natural gas due to price pressures, plastic production has experienced a true explosion over the past decades.
Especially in China and the U.S. this plastic explosion is evident. They are by far the countries consming most plastic bottles with a combined consumption of staggering 42.8 billion gallons
And here's a pocket-pinching fact: did you know that the average American spends more than staggering $16,000 on plastic water bottles throughout their lifetime?
That's like funding a small start-up or treating yourself to some fantastic travel adventures. But instead, it's going down the drain - literally.
Now that we've revealed some eye-opening statistics, it's time to dive even deeper into the impact of these ubiquitous bottles.
We'll look their contribution to pollution across their whole lifecycle - during production, usage, and disposal.
First of, the impact of these 600 billion bottles already starts with their production.
How Plastic Water Bottles Pollute During Production
Plastic Bottle Production Process
The process begins with the creation of long chains of plastic molecules through a process called polymerization. The plastic material is then mixed with several chemical additives, including dyes, to create the desired properties.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most popular material for producing drinking bottles, because it is lightweight, yet strong and durable.
The plastic pellets are poured into a machine that heats them to a very high temperature, so it becomes a thick liquid.
Then, the liquid plastic is injected into molds, where it hardens and sets into a bottle shape.
The bottle must be cooled almost instantly or it will lose its shape when gravity causes it to creep downward in its malleable, heated state.
Some manufacturers cool the bottle by circulating cold water or liquid. The process is universal, although manufacturers may vary the process slightly based on proprietary methods.
The main sources of pollution from the production process are resource consumption and emissions.
The production of plastic bottles uses valuable resources, including crude oil, energy, and water.
Plastic is made from crude oil. If you buy a plastic water bottle, producing this bottle takes around the equvalent of filling 1/4 of the bottle with oil.
On scale, the production alone needs the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to produce enough disposable plastic water bottles to meet America's annual demand for 29 billion water bottles a year.
But it does not stop here.
Researchers Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley from the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California estimate that the production of a single water bottle uses around around 2000 times the energy needed to produce tap water.
Taking into account the energy required to manufacture plastic, fabricate the plastic into bottles, process the water, fill and seal the bottles, transport the bottles, and chill the bottles for use, the US alone needs the energy equivalent of 54 million barrels of oil to every year to produce plastic bottles.
If you project that to the total global level (of 600 billion bottles), plastic bottle production uses around 1.1 billion barrels (177 billion litres) of oil, which is enough to fuel 93 million cars or all cars in Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands (assuming an average of 12 barrels needed per car per year).
But crude oil consumption and energy are only a part of the equation.
The big irony of drinking bottled water is: Producing the average plastic water bottle requires around 5.3 litres (1.4 gallons) of water.
With 600 billion water bottles per year, that adds up to 3.2 trillion litres of water wasted every year to produce bottled water.
Just imagine the good you could do with that much water.
You could, for example single-handedly solve the worlds water problem.
2 billion people or around 25% of the world population currently do not have access to clean drinking water.
If we saved the water from producing these plastic drinking bottles, we could provide around 4.4 litres of drinking water to every single one of them every day.
Plastic Bottle Emmissions
Plastic bottle production also is a very nasty process for the environment, when it comes to emissions.
Only recently in February 2023, inhabitants of East Palestine, Ohio needed to experience this at first hand, when a tragic train accident blackened the skies in the area with toxic clouds.
The train was carrying vinyl chloride, a highly toxic chemical used in the production of plastic pipes.
While the long term impact of the released chemicals is still to be determined, short term effects were alarming.
Contaminated water killed more than 43.000 animals only days after the accident, and "...that whole ecosystem, all the aquatic biota were wiped out in that upper stretch [of the Ohio River]...", as a researcher told the news.
The accident shows vividly that the bad impact of plastics on our planet spans across their full lifecycle.
While that specific chemical is not used for PET bottle production, plenty of other chemicals are included, which are just as harmful.
As you know from above, most plastic bottles today are made from PET. Their production process relies on chemical reactions, such as polymerization and a variety of chemicals known to be harmful to both the environment and humans.
FIrst of all, let's look at the two main components of PET bottles, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.
- Terephthalic acid: Terephthalic acid is a crystalline solid that is used in the production of PET as a main ingedient. It can be linked to various health issues like liver problems if it is ingested.
- Ethylene glycol: A colorless lquid obtained from natural ethane gas, ethylene glycol is the second main chemical used in PET plastic production. Ethylene glycol is produced in so-called ethane cracker plants, which are known to emit a whole number of hazardous air pollutants and pose a huge risk to humans and the environment.
But these two chemicals aren't the only ones associated with plastic bottle production. The process uses a variety of chemicals (some of which I can't even pronounce with a straight face).
- Antimony: Antimony is a cancer-causing catalyst used to speed up the production of PET plastic. It can be released into the environment during the manufacturing process and can cause hazardous chemical pollution. Antimony trioxide, a form of antimony, is known to cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and loss of sleep and can be released into the environment when PET bottles or scraps from productions are littered.
- Nickel: Nickel is a toxic emission generated during the production of PET resin. It can lead to lung cancer, nasal cancer, liver, and stomach problems and is equally harmful to the environment.
- Ethylbenzene: Ethylbenzene is used in the production of PET resin and can be released into the environment during the manufacturing process. It is a harmful chemical that can lead to throat irritation, chest constriction, irritation of the eyes, and neurological effects such as dizziness.
- Ethylene oxide: Ethylene oxide is another toxic emission produced during the production of PET resin. It is a hazardous chemical that can cause severe medical conditions such as damage to the brain and nervous system, miscarriages, decreased fertility, lymphoid cancer and breast cancer. No need to mention that the chemical is equally harmful to wildlife and our ecosystems.
- Benzene: Benzene is a carcinogenic chemical that is generated during the manufacturing of PET resin. It is known to have a plethora of harmful effects like damaging bone marrow, causing anemia, damaging development of fetuses, and causing leukemia. Benzene damages the environment in a smililar detrimental fashion.
- Acetaldehyde: Acetaldehyde is produced during the polymerization process and can also be generated during the bottle manufacturing process. High levels of acetaldehyde can cause memory loss, breathing problems, increased postnatal mortality, kidney damage, and strong irritation to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.
As you can see, all of the mentioned chemicals can have detrimental effects on human health and the environment.
Even if the residues from production and the wastewater are treated, there is always a remaining risk of chemicals leaking into the environment.
If they do, they contribute to air and water pollution, contaminate the soil, and pose severe risks to humans, wildlife, and ecosystems.
Aside of the materials directly emitted from the production, plastic production is also responsible for significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Even though it is not easy to find an exact breakdown of how different plastic products are responsible for this GHG impact, various studies paint a good picture.
Concerning PET plastic bottles specifically, studies are ranging from estimations of 44g CO2 per bottle to up to 633g per bottle.
If we believe the high estimate, plastic bottles alone have a yearly carbon footprint equivalent to driving 74 million cars over 10.000 miles.
As we learned, plastic water bottles already are pretty nasty, even before they reach the shelf in your favorite grocery store.
But hold on, we're getting started.
How Plastic Water Bottles Pollute While Being Used
The pollution of water bottles continues on the shelf, where it is ready for your purchase.
The main concerns here are the release of microplastics, bacteria, and chemicals into the water
Microplastics in Bottled Water
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that can result from breaking down plastic items.
One of the main sources for microplastic and its ingestion are plastic water bottles.
A worrying study shows that 93% of bottled water contains microplastic and it adds up.
With every liter of bottled water, we consume at least 10 particles of microplastic, and in total humans consume about a credit card worth of plastic every week.
Even more shocking is the fact that researchers already were able to show traces of microplastics in human lungs, breast milk, and even infant blood.
While the long-term effects are still being investigated researchers already call microplastics the number one threat to humankind.
If you're interested in the topic, we have dedicated an article about microplastics and how to limit your exposure here. It contains more studies, sources, and helpful tips.
Chemicals in Bottled Water
Just as worrying is the release of chemicals into your drinking water from the plastic bottle.
We've already listed the many chemicals involved in plastic bottle production above and while they can leak into the environment during production, it is also possible that you ingest these chemicals as they leak into your water from the plastic bottle.
In fact, an average of 22% of tested bottled water samples in a recent U.S. study found chemical levels above official health limits.
This is especially true, if PET bottles are used more than once, as this type of plastic is not produced to withstand multiple uses.
Bacteria in Bottled Water
It is also interesting to note that most bottled water contains more bacteria and less Fluoride than tapped water.
While consumers may buy into the expensive marketing by beverage companies, promising pure water full of minerals, they do not get what they are paying for.
Even better: you may end up paying a hundred or even a thousand times more for a brand name and actually receive water from a public source.
Studies have found that a quarter of bottled water comes from public water supply.
The only difference here is that the regulations for bottled water are actually less strict, and because the overpriced water comes in a plastic bottle, it is at a higher risk of being contaminated with bacteria during the bottling process than highly regulated tapped water.
A study in Canada even showed that 70 percent of locally collected bottled water samples contained bacterial rates more than 100 times the official health limit.
How Plastic Water Bottles Pollute After Their Lifespan
As you can imagine, the biggest pollution from plastic water bottles happens after their disposal.
Above, we already shed a light on the staggering numbers of plastic bottles being used every minute.
It won't come as a surprise that at their end of life, these bottles of course also need to be disposed of.
Once they are disposed, they can pollute the environment in various ways.
Now let's look at three different scenarios, recycling, regular waste, and littering.
Plastic Bottles In the Recycling Bin
Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled globally (15% is collected for recycling, but 40% of that is disposed of as residues).
For PET (1) and HDPE (2) plastic bottles recycling rates are slightly better and they are the only types of plastic that are truly recyclable,
Some countries are shining stars in the recycling arena, like Norway, where an impressive 97% of plastic bottles are recycled. Go Norway!
But, alas, not all countries are hitting those green targets. In the United States, for instance, a disappoingting 29% of PET bottles are collected for recycling, and only 21% of the bottles are actually made into recycled materials due to contamination.
The bottles that enter the proper recycling process are shredded, melted and formed into small pellets or fibre of recycled PET (rPET) that can be used for other plastc products, including new plastic bottles.
As raw material, the pellets or fibres re-enter the production process, where they are again at risk of polluting the environment through production spills, energy consumption and other emissions, as noted above.
The good news (as reported by the plastic recycling industry) is that the rPET used in new products at least will end up using 79% less energy and 67% less emissions than virgin PET.
Nonetheless, most recycled PET will not end up as new bottles, but rather as fiber for clothes production or as packaging like thermoforms (those boxes that e.g. your muffins come in),
The reason is that processing rPET is complex and thus especially the big manufacturers like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé still mainly rely on virgin plastics.
An excuse they use is that reusing rPET in bottle manufacturing is too expensive and it needs to be clear, colorless, and free from contaminants (e.g. from the labels).
Consequently, only 30% of the rPET ends up being used for new plastic bottles, while 45% is used for fibre and 12% ends up in packaging.
Plastic Bottles in the Regular Trash
While they breaks down, they will never biodegrade, but rather turn to microplastics and leak chemicals into the soil that finally can harm the environment.
Incineration is another way plastic bottles are handled, but it is not a sustainable solution.
Incineration creates significant CO2 and in fact it is the major source of GHG in plastic waste management.
On average, a ton of burned plastic emits 2.9 tons of CO2 and globally plastic incineration accounts for 16 million tons of GHG, which is equivalent to 2.7 million homes.
While incineration reduces the need for landfill of plastic waste, it releases significant GHG and additional toxis substances into the atmosphere during the process.
The fumes released during the incineration of plastics contain halogenated additives, polyvinyl chloride, furans, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are harmful to the environment and public health.
Therefore, throwing plastic bottles in the regular trash is not a sustainable solution, and it has a significant impact on the environment.
Littered Plastic Bottles
Unfortunately, a big portion of the mismanaged or littered plastic waste globally comes from plastic bottles.
That makes plastic bottles the second most polluting item in our oceans, following only plastic bags.
Once in the ocean, plastic bottles are killing wildlife and harming the environment by breaking down into microplastics.
While it is difficult to estimate the exact number of marine wildlife that are killed by plastic every year, sources range from 100 thousand mammals over 1 million seabirds to 100 million animals in total*.
If we continue our trajectory with increased pastic production and the current waste management, by 2050 we will have more plastic in the world's oceans than fish.
Drastically Reducing Our Plastic Usage Is The Only Way
This article showed that plastic water bottles are a major contributor to environmental pollution.
It starts with their production, which consumes valuable resources, emits harmful chemicals, and generates greenhouse gases.
While we use them, they emit microplastics, chemicals, and bacteria into the drinking water, harming our health.
After disposal, the pollution continues, as plastic bottles litter landfills, oceans, and ecosystems, releasing microplastics and toxins that harm wildlife and human health.
To address this critical issue, we must act urgently by reducing plastic usage, improving recycling rates, and adopting sustainable alternatives.
Ditching plastic water bottles
The solution could not be more simple. Just finally get rid of bottled water. There really isn't a good reason to spend money for it in the first place.
If you're not a fan of tapped water, consider investing in a water filter that will remove or significantly reduce the exposure to microplastics and chemicals in the water from your tap, making it delicious and even safer to drink.
Filters are available both online and in most grocery stores.
Waterdrop is a great place to start, as they have a great range of filters. From simple pitchers to professional faucets, you'll find certified water filters.
With our SWOP partnership coupon, you'll save 10%. Just enter the following coupon code at the checkout: IIPYELNQGJ
They currently only deliver to the U.S., so we had our pitcher with a bunch of replacement filters when we vsited friends.
We're super happy with the result though. No more water tasting like chlorine and no more plastic bottles.
Let's go back to a more conscious consumption of resources where we value what we have avoid throwaway items.
Dittching plastic cleaning bottles
If you want to take a step further, plastic bottles are just as prevalent in other areas of the household.
It is estimated that 2.5 billion plastic cleaner bottles reach the landfill every year. That includes everything from dish washing soap to all purpose cleaner and laundry soap.
Again, we got you covered, if you want to make a difference and fight the plastic flood.
This natural dish wash set will drastically reduce your need for plastic and eliminate up to 5 plastic dish soap bottles.
If you're keen to eliminate the plastic waste caused by cleaning and laundry, we also got you covered.
Ditching plastic bottles for your personal care
Finally, you'll not be surprised that your personal care items contribute a significant portion of the yearly plastic waste.
It is estimated that 250 million plastic bottles of body wash are disposed of every year in the US alone. Add that same amount for shampoo and you got a huge oppoertunity to drastically reduce plastic in your bathroom.
Check out our collections for zero waste hair care and zero waste body care and we're sure you'll find a couple of beautiful items that will make you want to ditch these plastic bottles in your bathroom forever.
We hope you enjoyed this article. If you want to read more like this, make sure to check out our Blog and follow us on Instagram. If you are interested in truly sustainable products, check out our Shop.
If you want to engage in the discussion, feel free to leave a comment below.
*While the number of 100 million marine animals dying from plastic every year is floating around in the internet and is cited by many sources, we treat the number with scepticism, as we could not track down the original report.