water bottles are purchased per minute and close to 400 billion plastic water bottles are produced per year. This number has been exponential increasing and is set to be close to 600 billion by 2021 .
Plastic bottles are seen as a disposable means of buying drinks and are discarded without thought after use. This obsession with disposable plastic bottles is a serious issue that is already causing major human health and environmental problems.
How are plastic water bottles made?
The environmental problems associated with plastic bottles begins in the production process. The process is broken up into 3 steps as follows:
#1 Preparing the raw material
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most commonly used material in the production of plastic bottles. PET and recycled plastic (up to 10% of the total material) is ground into small pellets.
Plastic pellets are heated in an oven to between 300 – 500 degrees Celsius and injected into a tubular shaped mold.
The plastic tubes are placed inside another mold to be formed into the bottle shape. A needle pushes pressurized air into the center of each mold to create the hollow interior and final shape of the bottle.
#3 Cooling and trimming
The plastic bottle is quickly cooled with cold water or liquid nitrogen before it loses its shape, excess plastic is trimmed off, and a bottle cap is placed on top.
After production is finished sample bottles are typically tested to determine their strength and quality [2,3]. This process is very energy intensive and usually powered by fossil fuel energy sources.
The real cost of drinking water from plastic bottles
Plastic bottles have become so common in our lives that we rarely associate any value with them. In reality they create immeasurable impacts on the environment and cost millions of dollars per year.
Because such little value is attached to plastic bottles people often discard them on the ground where they become trapped in terrestrial ecosystems or float into our oceans.
Plastic bottles take around 400 years to fully degrade in landfills and even longer in natural ecosystems. In our oceans plastic bottles build up over time and create huge areas of floating plastic, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
This is a floating area of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that is estimated to contain 2 million tonnes of plastic waste .
Aquatic animals are some of the most affected species from plastic contamination. Nearly 100 million aquatic animals die per year directly from plastic. Animals often confuse plastic bottles, and specifically bottle caps, for food and eat them. This leads to serious health problems for the animals, often damaging their digestive system.
Additionally, many smaller animals get trapped inside plastic bottles, preventing them from getting food, and leading to their death .
On land and oceans plastic bottles break down into small fragments over time. These pieces contain harmful chemicals like Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).
When plastic fragments finally disintegrate the toxins are released in high concentrations that can kill microorganisms in soil and water.
These impacts damage the natural ecosystems that we rely on.
Plastic bottle waste creates direct negative consequences for us. Not only do plastic bottles look unsightly, but they pose a serious health risk. Just like for plants and microorganisms, PCBs released from plastic are harmful for our health.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most studied PCBs and is commonly released by plastic water bottles as they degrade. Studies have found that BPA mimics estrogen in the human body. This has been linked to an increased risk of getting some chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes, and cancer.
Women that have high levels of PCBs in their body are found to have a lower rate for a successful pregnancy [4,5].
The full effects of PCBs on the human body is not yet known, but it is already clear that they have the potential to be extremely harmful.
The importance of recycling plastic water bottles
It is challenging to completely stop using disposable bottles because they are so commonly found in our lives. One way to help reduce their harm is by recycling them.
Recycling plastic bottles reduces the amount of new oil that must be extracted from earth for plastic production. By reducing our oil requirement we also decrease the amount of energy needed to produce plastic bottles, lower the amount of greenhouse gases being produced, and reduce the amount of plastic waste in our landfills .
These are all positive steps in the right direction.
Products made from recycled plastic bottles
When plastic bottles are recycled they are shredded into tiny plastic pellets that can be melted into new objects.
Recycled plastic products have become more and more popular over the last decade. These products cover a huge variety of purposes from shoes to children’s toys to even football jerseys.
Nike makes the USA men’s national team jersey using yarn from recycled plastic bottles.
The increase in recycled plastic products is a positive sign for the future.
Environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastic bottles
Recycling plastic and buying recycled plastic products are good ways to help reduce the negative impacts of plastic bottles, but the absolute best way is to stop using them.
Reusable bottles made out of stainless steel, aluminum, or glass are some of the best alternatives. There is a huge market for reusable water bottles.
Reusable bottles can be found with a plethora of features to meet the needs of almost anyone. Additionally, metal pitchers with built in water filters are an excellent way to safely drink tap water.
Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world and is used for countless different purposes. Plastic bottles are just one of the many different types of plastic waste we find in our environments.
To help reduce the amount of plastic our society produces, we must move away from using plastic products.
Using reusable and environmentally friendly bottles is an easy lifestyle change that can have significant positive impacts for the environment.