Why Are Plastic Bottles Bad & What Can We Do About It?

As a keen festival goer, I’ve seen first-hand the sheer volume of discarded water bottles during large events.

However, it’s not just large events that are the problem. We’re living in a throwaway society, and single-use plastic bottles have become a convenience norm.

Plastic bottles have numerous uses (shampoo, detergent, dish soap, etc.). Still, it’s the drinking water market driving our usage of plastic bottles, so that is what I’ll predominantly focus on in this article.

Americans purchase approximately 50 billion water bottles per year. That’s almost 137 million plastic water bottles EVERY DAY and averages out at around 13 bottles per month for every person in the U.S.

What Are Plastic Water Bottles Made Of?

The most common type of plastic used for plastic water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is fully recyclable, but it’s not what you would consider an eco-friendly product.

An incredible amount of oil is used to make plastic water bottles. If you drink 75% of the water in a single-use water bottle, the amount left is approximately how much oil would have been used to produce the bottle. In fact, 17 million barrels of crude oil are needed each year to feed the U.S. bottled water habit.

Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

One of the main reasons Americans buy so much bottled water is the perception that it’s better for us than tap water. But is this really the case?

Tap Water

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strictly regulates the quality of tap water in the U.S. They set legal limits on over 90 contaminants to ensure what comes out of our taps at home is as safe as it possibly can be to drink.

Municipal water in the U.S. is some of the best in the world, thanks to the four-step process it goes through to make it safe to drink:

  1. Coagulation and flocculation: Chemicals are added to the water. These chemicals bind with dirt and any other dissolved particles. This all joins together to form larger particles, known as floc.
  2. Sedimentation: The floc is heavy and sinks to the bottom of the tank.
  3. Filtration: Once the floc sediment has settled at the bottom of the tank, the clear water on top passes into filters made from sand, gravel, and charcoal. This filtration process removes the microscopic particles that did not turn into floc (dust, parasites, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, etc.).
  4. Disinfection: Chlorine (or chloramine) is added to kill any remaining parasites, bacteria, viruses, and germs. Fluorine is also sometimes added to help prevent tooth decay.

Bottled Water

Bottled water, on the other hand, is nowhere near as regulated. Greenwashing is rife in this marketplace. There might be a mountain stream on the bottle, but there is a good chance that the water inside has come from a municipal water supply.

Drinking bottled water is also significantly more expensive than tap water. This is crazy when you think that a significant percentage of bottled water companies in the U.S. simply offer tap water in a branded plastic bottle.

In most cases, purchasing bottled water is simply a waste of money.

damage done by plastic bottles

Plastic Water Bottles And The Planet

Less than 25% of the plastic water bottles purchased in the U.S. are recycled. Meaning over 75% of all plastic water bottles in the U.S. end up in landfill or just discarded carelessly elsewhere. This harms the planet in many ways.

Wildlife Harm

The amount of plastic water bottles in our oceans is genuinely staggering. There are an estimated 930 billion pieces of plastic in the North Atlantic alone. Marine animals die when they mistake plastic waste for food or become entangled in it.

Environmental Harm

Plastic pollution is a big problem in the U.S., and drinking bottled water is making it worse.

When sat in a landfill pile, the chemicals in plastic water bottles start to leach out into the ground. It becomes even more worrying if plastic water bottles are discarded on or near land used for growing crops. The chemical leaching will find its way into the crops and, eventually, into the humans eating those crops.

When discarded plastic from bottled water find their way into reservoirs and other drinking water sources, they will start to break down and potentially add toxic chemicals to the water supply.

Plastic bottle production also comes with a heavy carbon footprint. Manufacturing one pound of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can generate up to three pounds of carbon dioxide in production and transportation.

Water Waste

Making single-use plastic water bottles is, ironically, a total waste of water. It takes 1.39 liters of water to make a 1-liter plastic water bottle.

Plastic Water Bottles And Human Health

It’s not just the planet that’s affected by plastic water bottles. They can also be detrimental to human health in numerous ways.

BPA Consumption

Some plastic bottles contain a chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical seeps into the water contained in the bottle so, when we drink the water, this chemical enters our body.

BPA is a weak synthetic estrogen that can block or mimic the hormone estrogen and other sex hormones. This can disrupt the natural balance of hormones in the body and also disrupt the thyroid system.

Estrogen can cause several different types of breast cancer, and it’s believed that BPA can do the same.

This is why most modern reusable plastic water bottles are BPA-free. Many mass-produced single-use plastic water bottles, however, still contain BPA.

Consumption Of Other Harmful Chemicals

Phthalates are added to plastic water bottles during the manufacturing process to increase their flexibility. They can disrupt the endocrine system and cause reduced fertility, particularly in men.

Another toxic chemical used in the production of plastic bottles is Antimony. Consuming high levels of Antimony can lead to issues such as lung disease, diarrhea, and stomach ulcers.

Higher levels of harmful chemicals are often found in the water contained in bottles left to warm up (in the sun or a hot car, for example).

Microplastics

A World Health Organisation report in 2018 highlighted the shockingly high levels of microplastic in bottled water. This is because bottled water is not regulated as strictly as tap water.

Reusing Single-Use Plastic Bottles

Many Americans have empty disposable plastic water bottles lying around the house. To try and be more eco-friendly, they refill them from the tap and use them multiple times.

On the face of it, this is a great idea. However, it can be dangerous to reuse a single-use water bottle.

The shape and design of most single-use water bottles make them challenging to clean properly. As time passes, the water you’re drinking from these bottles contains more and more bacteria. Eventually, this buildup of bacteria will make you sick.

Proper reusable bottles are much easier to clean (most are even dishwasher safe) and better for your overall health.

Plastic Bottles And The Economy

As mentioned in our article on why plastic bags are bad, plastic is big business. It holds just as true for the bottled water industry as it does for the plastic bag industry.

Remember, the U.S. gets through 11 million barrels of oil annually to produce 137 million plastic water bottles daily.

These are big numbers, and with big numbers come big profits for the oil and plastic companies.

Profits they’re prepared to fight for tooth and nail. Usually through lobbying, with the help of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

High-income countries generate more plastic waste than low/middle-income countries. However, the low/middle-income countries and their inadequate waste management systems often result in more incorrectly disposed of plastic bottles.

Wealthy countries have the money to set up waste management infrastructure to dispose of their plastic waste properly.

Poorer countries cannot afford the waste management systems to keep up with the plastic consumption of their population. The problem is then exacerbated by the fact that wealthy countries export any excess plastic waste to the poorer countries.

The porter countries, desperate for additional income coming into the economy, accept the waste even when they have no way of processing it correctly. The result of all this is poor practices such as burning and dumping at sea.

Something needs to be agreed between all countries, across all income levels, to ensure that every single piece of plastic waste is recycled or disposed of safely and sustainably.

What Can We Do About It?

There are many things we can do to reduce the number of single-use water bottles.

Reusable Water Bottles

Carrying a good quality reusable water bottle everywhere you go is a simple yet incredibly effective way to reduce your plastic bottle usage.

At the start of this article, I mentioned that U.S. plastic water bottle usage averages 13 per person per month. So, for every person using a reusable water bottle for a year, we would save 156 discarded water bottles going to landfill.

That might not sound a lot, but it soon adds up. Based on these numbers, it would only take 6,410 people to save one million plastic bottles from landfill every year.

Lobbying

Consider lobbying your local government representative to reduce the amount of single-use plastic water bottles used in shops, cafes, restaurants, etc., in your local area.

If the use of a disposable plastic water bottle was subject to a significant tax increase we would more than likely see usages levels reduced, similar to what has happened with the plastic bag tax mentioned in our article here.

Water Jugs

If you drink bottled water for purity reasons, then maybe consider a water filter jug. This will boost the purity of your tap water even further. Keep the jug in the fridge, and you’ll always have chilled filtered water to hand. Just make sure you go for a BPA-free jug and recyclable filters.

If your budget allows, you might even want to consider a water filtration system that gives you ultra-clean filtered water right from the tap.

Both options will help reduce plastic waste.

Educate Others

Tell friends, family, neighbors, work colleagues, etc., all about the negatives that come with plastic bottled water.

Stuck for a gift idea one Christmas? Buy everyone nice shiny (literally) new stainless steel reusable water bottles.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are The Best Toxin-Free Reusable Water Bottles?

When shopping for a reusable water bottle, look for BPA-free plastic or stainless steel. Check out our full list of recommendations here.

How Long Does It Take For A Plastic Bottle To Decompose?

Plastic pollution is a big problem due in no small part to the time it takes to decompose. Bottled water waste can take around 500 years to decompose fully.

Why Is Bottled Water So Much More Expensive Than Tap Water?

Bottled water is expensive because you’re paying for many unnecessary steps from the source to your mouth. The bottled water company needs to make a plastic water bottle. The plastic water bottle then needs to be filled with water. The bottled water then needs to be packaged and shipped to the store. The bottled water company passes the cost of all this on to you, plus a nice healthy profit margin for themselves.

Is Plastic Illegal In Some Countries?

In some countries, people face jail time for using plastic bags. In March 2020, New York state implemented a state-wide plastic bag ban. Hopefully, in the future plastic bottles will be considered as bad as plastic bags.

Why Should Plastic Bottles Be Banned?

There are so many reasons to ban plastic bottles. Here are two that immediately spring to mind:

  • Most plastic production is a waste of fossil fuels and other non-renewable raw materials
  • Some plastic water bottles contain toxic chemicals that are bad for our health

The Final Word

The current insatiable global appetite for bottled water is having multiple damaging effects.

It’s common knowledge that plastic water bottles affect the environment. However, the lesser-known effects on human health are eye-opening!

A plastic water bottle consumes masses of natural resources during manufacture. They potentially leach toxic chemicals in the water we drink. They then clog up our landfills and oceans.

They’re a triple threat, and our usage needs to be significantly reduced and eventually eradicated ASAP.

I believe that we should only purchase bottled water as a last resort. For example, in Flint, Michigan, where municipal water has been officially declared unsafe to drink.

Carrying a reusable bottle and using refilling stations or water fountains is a minimal amount of effort to ensure healthier drinking water and less plastic waste for all.

James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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