iStock/mihailomilovanovicBottled Water’s Impact on the Planet
The potential health risks are important to understand, but bottled water also affects the health of the planet.
“Bottled water is an increasingly growing business, and with that comes a whole lot of environmental impact that can be avoided by a turn of the faucet,” says Jenny Powers of the NRDC. While we struggle to cut down on our consumption of fossil fuels, bottled water increases them. Virgin petroleum is used to make PET, and the more bottles we use, the more virgin petroleum will be needed to create new bottles. Fossil fuels are burned to fill the bottles and dis-tribute them. (Stephen Kay of IBWA points out that it’s not just bottled water, but juices, soda and other beverages packed in plastic that add to this waste.)
Some brands of water come from islands and countries thousands of miles away, and shipping bottles can cause carbon pollution to spill into the water and spew into the air.
Then there’s the waste of water itself, says Todd Jarvis, PhD, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. According to his calculations, it takes about 72 billion gallons of water a year, worldwide, just to make the empty bottles.
Treating and filtering tap water for bottling creates even more waste. By some estimates, it takes about two liters of water to make every liter you see on store shelves. “Bottled water has a significant environmental burden,” says the NRDC’s Goldstein.
A big part of the appeal of bottled water is those convenient single-serving bottles. Yet fewer than 20 percent of them ever make it to a second life, according to estimates by the Container Recycling Institute. The rest are tossed onto beaches and roadsides and into landfills, where they could be around for a thousand years. Nestlé Waters, Dasani and other bottlers are trying to be greener, introducing lighter-weight bottles that use up to 30 percent less plastic.
It’s a good start, but more needs to be done—by them, and by us.
Bottled Water’s Environmental Toll
• The energy used each year making the bottles needed to meet the demand for bottled water in the United States is equivalent to more than 17 million barrels of oil. That’s enough to fuel over 1 million cars for a year.
• If water and soft drink bottlers had used 10% recycled materials in their plastic bottles in 2004, they would have saved the equivalent of 72 million gallons of gasoline. If they had used 25%, they would have saved enough energy to electrify more than 680,000 homes for a year.
• In 2003, the California Department of Conservation estimated that roughly three million water bottles are trashed every day in that state. At this rate, by 2013 the amount of unrecycled bottles will be enough to create a two-lane highway that stretches the state’s entire coast.
• In 2004 the recycling rate for all beverage containers was 33.5 percent. If it reached 80 percent, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be the equivalent of removing 2.4 million cars from the road for a year.
• That bottle that takes just three minutes to drink can take up to a thousand years to biodegrade.
Sources: Earth Policy Institute, As You Sow, Container Recycling Institute.
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