Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Kick the Plastic Habit: Plastic water bottles and other single-use beverage containers

I'm a few days late (blame another beautiful camping trip!) but... Happy Plastic Free July!!! 

Single-use plastics have become a HUGE problem in recent decades, persisting in the environment indefinitely and posing life-threatening hazards to wildlife.  Even if you don't care about the sea turtles, birds, whales and the like, realize this: plastics do not "break down."  They break up into little pieces, and those little pieces become part of the food chain.  If you remain unconvinced... surely you can relate to the feeling of disgust that comes with seeing plastic trash covering our roadsides, beaches and other wild areas.

The premise of having of Plastic Free July (or summer, or life!) is simple: Refuse the single-use plastic items in your life.  They have GOT TO GO.  All of them.

This sea turtle died after trying to eat a plastic bag, which turtles commonly mistake for jellyfish. 
(Photo courtesy of

Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous in our convenience- and consumer-driven culture that I would wager you hardly notice them anymore.  If we were to be completely strict (or honest with ourselves) everything from toothpaste tubes to bottles of motor oil count as disposable plastics.  But for the sake of simplicity (and scaling down to a manageable task), my next few blog posts will focus on the most commonly used and abused throw-away plastics.

A sea bird, dead after getting its beak stuck in a plastic bottle cap.  (Photo credit: 

By the way... the graphic photographs will keep coming until my point is made, with no apologies; we must see these images and face what we've done.

Coyote in New Hampshire, dead after getting its head stuck in a plastic jar (Photo credit: NH1 news)

A line-up of the top single-use plastic offenders includes the following:

Plastic bottles and other single-use beverage containers (think all fast food and coffee shop drinks)

Plastic packaging of all types (it's truly everywhere, and it is all equally despicable)

Plastic bags (grocery bags, Ziploc bags, etc.)

Plastic drinking straws (utterly unnecessary, and a much bigger problem than most people realize.  Learn about it at Plastic Pollution Coalition and The Last Plastic Straw.)

Balloons (Visit Balloons for more information on these nefarious pollutants) and other single-use or easily broken party supplies (think plastic table cloths and cheap plastic party "decorations" and favors)

Single-use plates, cups, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, etc.  (It's disgusting to me that we have reached a point where "elegant" disposable plastic tableware is successfully marketed and so highly praised.)

But today, I'll target my most dastardly and despised foe: I'm looking at you, plastic water bottles! 

Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency

Walking the dogs the other day, I paused to let a large delivery truck rumble past, holding my breath against the inevitable cloud of exhaust that followed.  Painted in bright colors on the side of the truck was the logo and advertising slogan of a popular bottled water company.  And I was struck by the insanity of the situation before me. 

Here we are in America, a wealthy, developed country, with far, far more than we need to meet our physical needs.  We have layers upon layers of brilliant infrastructure designed to deliver clean running water to our homes and businesses - even to our outdoor faucets, sprinkler systems and swimming pools.  Our water is tested regularly and kept safe - for drinking! 

The small miracle of this infrastructure and the technology that goes along with it is not lost on me.  It is astounding.  It is beautiful.  It is something to be thankful for. 

We turn on the tap and life-giving water flows freely.  We are entirely without fear or even passing concern for the water's cleanliness, safety, drinkability. 

And yet, Americans will happily pay 2,000 times more for their water to come packaged in little, clear, petroleum-based single-use plastic water bottles.  Two thousand times more! 

According to Business Insider, in 2012 (the most recent data available), Americans spent $11.8 billion dollars on bottled water, an increase of 6.5% from the previous year.  That 11.8 billion dollars bought 9.7 billion gallons of water - all in plastic bottles.  If you do the quick math, this puts the cost per gallon at $1.22. 

But let me remind you that a huge amount of additional resources are behind the bottled water industry; it's not just about the water.  The plastic for the bottles and the fuel to ship them across the country are the two most obvious examples of additional resources consumed in the bottled water industry - and both are derived from oil.  According to estimates by the Earth Policy Institute, more than 15 million barrels of oil are used every year to make plastic water bottles for the United States alone.  And that's just for manufacturing.  Add in fuel to transport bottled water to stores... and fuel to transport empty bottles to recycling facilities, or more likely, incinerators and landfills.... and the number skyrockets.

Which brings me to my next point: recycling. 

"I recycle all of my plastic bottles," you say.  As you should.  Recycling is not an entirely useless endeavor... but it is far, far less sustainable and redeeming than most believe.  The quality of recycled plastic is less than that of virgin material and continues to degrade with each subsequent recycling...
until one way or another, all plastic is eventually destined for landfills and incinerators, or to persist as minute particles in the environment and food web (especially in our oceans).  When you can, choose glass, which can be recycled nearly indefinitely without losing quality, or sustainably sourced paper products, which can also be recycled or composted.

Simply not buying plastic bottles and therefore decreasing the demand for them will do far more good in the long run than recycling ever will. 

We should not have to spend money and resources to "recycle" items that should never have been manufactured in the first place!

"More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day – a total of about 22 billion last year. Six times as many plastic water bottles were thrown away in the US in 2004 as in 1997."  - Container Recycling Institute

In 2004, America's national recycling rate was 17%.  One in six plastic water bottles was recycled.  So clearly, even you faithful recyclers are grossly outnumbered.

Photo credit: Parley for the Oceans

Sometimes I do despair; I can't help but wonder what have we done?  How did we get to this point without noticing - or caring - about the damage our throw-away society has created?  How can we possibly go back to fix the damage and change our atrocious habits?  Why does it seem that no one else sees the problems I see?  Why do so few seem to care?

And, most importantly, what are we to do?  Am I saying we must all dehydrate?  No, of course not!

Reusable water bottles are a thing of beauty as well as convenience, once you get the hang of them.  Believe it or not, we humans have done quite well over the millennia without single-use plastic water bottles.  From hunter-gatherer-era flasks made of animal skins, to metal Civil War era canteens, to modern favorites like stainless steel canteens and BPA-free Nalgene bottles, we have always found a way to carry water, our most basic need.  I assure you, it can be done!  All it takes is a very little bit of training and discipline. 

Rocks, shells, driftwood, seaweed: the only things that should be littering our beaches! 
On this particular beach walk, I picked up (and disposed of) assorted plastic bags, balloons and their strings, bottle caps,
flip flops and a broken iPhone, in addition to plastic water bottles.

Start the Plastic Free July challenge today by swapping your plastic water bottles for reusable ones, and refuse to go back! 

If cost seems to be an issue, your first step is to do some quick math: add up how much you spend in one month on bottled water (and soda and juice and tea and......).  Step two is even easier: don't buy the bottled water (or other beverages) and save that money instead.  It will add up surprisingly fast.  (Plus, it's a fact: if something is a priority for you, you will find both the time and the money for it.) 

Finally, just do it: buy yourself, your spouse, your kids and your dog all reusable water bottles! 

To ensure that you use your new water bottles, keep them filled and chilled in the refrigerator, just like you  would plastic bottles of water.  (Never let them hide in kitchen cabinets!  This is not where you store other refreshing bottled beverages, is it?)

Grab a bottle on your way out the door, every time you head out the door.  Leave yourself a note if you have to in order to remember at first; it will take time to become a habit, but you'll get there.  Tuck your bottle in your purse, backpack, briefcase or gym bag.  Maybe stash an extra bottle in your car or at work.  Acquaint yourself with drinking fountains and the handy water bottle filling stations that are happily gaining popularity.  Then, enjoy the taste of guilt-free refreshment all day.

Read more about how I combat waste in the kitchen here.

Check my facts and learn more here:

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