(BEING CONTINUED FROM 06/12/14)
Lack of Recycling
Recycling rates throughout the world are not extraordinary and the United States’ rates look even more
dismal. The average international recycling rate for beverage containers for the world is 50%, but the United
States is 20% and this number has been declining (Soechtig, 2009). Betty McLaughlin, the former Executive
Director for the Container Recycling Institute, declared, “It’s just because there isn’t enough recycling capacity.
There’s not enough collection,” (Soechtig, 2009).
Low recycling rates can be attributes to two different situations. First, the recycling centers were not
created for recycling PET bottles. Recycling all the PET bottles in America is not currently feasible. Traditional
recycling programs were not designed with plastics in mind, but rather aluminum and glass (Gleick, 2010, p.
100). Not only that, but they aren’t easily accessible. Recycling centers are not abundant, making it less
attractive to haul all your recyclables to a center that is far away. “Most U.S. communities can recycle the
empties, but because most bottled water is consumed in places that often lack recycling bins- on the street, in
the movie theaters, at parks, and on the road- the product has a pitiful recovery rate: barely 15 percent,” (Royte,
2008, p. 154).
Second, there is no real incentive to recycle unless the state has a bottle bill. A recycling bin is just not as
easy to find in a public place as a garbage can is. Betty McLaughlin insisted, “If 1/3 of their products are not
being consumed at home, that means that’s 1/3 that has no chance of making it to the recycling bin. That’s 56
billion containers. That’s an awful lot to just give up,” (Soechtig, 2009). To create incentive to recycle some
states have enacted bottle bills. States with bottle bills recycle 60 to 90 percent of their beverage containers,
while the national average for states without bills is just 23 percent (Royte, 2008, p. 156).
Bottle bills consist of consumers paying a small deposit on their purchase of the bottle and then receive
that deposit back when the bottle is returned for recycling (Soechtig, 2009). In 1971, Oregon passed the very
first bottle bill based on the idea that you pay a nickel deposit on a glass or aluminum container when bought
and you get your nickel back when returned (Gleick, 2010, p. 100).
Only 11 states currently have bottle bills. These include California, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa,
Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont (Soechtig, 2009). Sadly, most bottle bills do
not include deposits for bottled water because they did not exist in 1971 when the first bills were passed (Gleick,
2010, p. 101). Of these 11, only 6 states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New York, and Oregon) have
expanded their bills to include plastic water bottles (Soechtig, 2009). New York became the 6th state in 2009.
States with a 5 cent deposit get about a 70% return rate, while Michigan has a 10 cent deposit and has a 97%
return rate (Soechtig, 2009). It can be concluded that Michigan’s bottle bill is an extremely successful recycling
plan. “It really is a proven system. It has been in place in most of these states for 25 or more years and we know
it works well,” states McLaughlin. Even though it works well, most states do not have bottled water included in
their bottle bills because it was not relevant when the bills were passed decades ago (Soechtig, 2009). In
addition, bottlers do not make it easy to get these laws changed.
Bottles in the Ocean
Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation perfectly sums up, “It’s a bother to people. They are not taking the time; they don’t have the space to keep it around until they can get it to a recycling center or to the landfill. When it rains, all that plastic is mobilized, goes down the streams, into the rivers, and down to the sea. That’s why we are seeing so much of it in the environment,” (Soechtig, 2009).
Captain Moore explains that when we throw something away it becomes out of sight out of mind, but it has to
go somewhere, and that place is Kamilo Beach in Hawaii. The beach is bombarded with our plastic leftovers,making it more like a garbage pit than a beach paradise. Moore continues, “Of 80 million bottles of water we drink in the United States every day, many of them make their way to the sea, where they are carried by ocean currents and end up deposited on some distant shore. This is the constituents of sand now. Instead of being coral and shells and rock, it’s plastic. This is a beach of the future. This is what we are going to recreate in if we continue to pollute the environment with plastic.”
The captain and his crew explore what is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch in the central Pacific
Ocean. The patch, or gyre, is twice the size of the state of Texas, and basically consists of a whirlwind of trash.
These gyres are repeated in the North and South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean (Soechtig, 2009).
Moore is especially concerned that plastic parts are starting to outnumber plankton in those parts of the
ocean. Moore accounts what happens when they go out on his boat to collect samples, “Well, what we do is we
go out to this gyre and trawl a net, it just so happens that when we pull in that net, more than finding the
plankton in the ocean, we’re finding plastic. And so what we see here in this jar is a one mile trawl out in the
middle ocean, as far from land as you can get anywhere on earth. And instead of it being clear ocean water with
ocean animals, it’s a plastic soup, with more plastic than plankton.” That jar is filled with bits and pieces of
plastic swirling through the water. There is no plankton. In 1999, Moore did a survey and found 6 times has
much plastic as plankton. When the survey was repeated in 2008, they found 40 times as much plastic as
plankton (Soechtig, 2009). It is obvious that our waste has been increasingly encroaching on natural habitats
such as plankton.
Energy Consumption and Waste
The making of a bottle of water has its own costs as well. Multiply that by the billions produced each
year and those costs increase significantly. Materials, production, and transportation are the three main areas of
energy consumption and waste.
Oil is a main ingredient in the creation of plastic bottles. Since we have already passed our peak of oil
consumption, there is no longer enough to keep up with our consumption, especially with the world’s
population dramatically increasing. Using all this oil to make single-serve plastic water bottles just so we can
enjoy it on the go seems kind of silly.
For many, there has been a backlash over the use of oil, not water. As addressed in Bottlemania, 17
million barrels (714 million gallons) of oil a year are used to make plastic water bottles for the U.S. market. That
oil could fuel 1.3 million cars for one year (Royte, 2008, p. 138).The production of a kilogram of PET, roughly 30
one-liter plastic bottles, takes around 3 liters of petroleum (Gleick, 2010, p. 94). In addition to all the PET that is
being produced, some of it never even gets to be used. In 2006, almost 4 billion pounds of PET went to waste,
which is equivalent to 72 billion bottles (Royte, 2008, p. 158).
Besides oil, water is an obvious material in bottled water. The manufacture and filling of a bottle
consumes twice as much water than will ultimately be in the bottle. This is because bottle-making machines are
cooled by water (Royte, 2008, p. 140). On average, only 60 to 70 percent of the water used by bottling plants
ends up in the final product, the rest of the water is wasted (Royte, 2008, p. 140). In 2006, Coke used 290 billion
liters of water to produce 114 billion liters of beverages (Royte, 2008, p. 158). That is 176 billion liters of wasted
water; water that could have been used elsewhere for a better purpose.
To produce all the bottles, energy is constantly being used to run the machines, the plant, transport
materials to the production plant, and to chill the water (Figure 2). More energy is then required to turn PET into
bottles, to filter, ozonate, or otherwise purify the water, to run the machines, and to chill the bottle before use
(Gleick, 2010, p. 94). Treatments such as ultraviolet radiation, micro or ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and
ozonation, all require added energy (Gleick & Cooley, 2009). Additionally, machines must rinse, fill, cap and label the bottles. The average machine can clean, fill, and seal around 15,000 bottles per hour (Gleick & Cooley,2009).
Not only are the tangible bottles damaging our ecosystems, but the PET used to produce them is
damaging as well. Many petrochemical plants have major leaks in the ground that allow PET to contaminate
groundwater (Soechtig, 2009). Furthermore, producing the plastics creates its own waste. Resources are not
being allocated efficiently, creating externalities such as emissions of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and
benzene from the plastic-making process (Royte, 2008, p. 138).
Not only is energy required to make plastic bottles, but energy and resources are used to transport
bottles across the country and around the globe. The energy requirement depends on two factors: the distance
and the mode of transportation. The farther the distance means more energy is consumed. Air cargo is the most
intensive mode of transport, followed by truck, rail, or bulk ocean shipping (Gleick & Cooley, 2009). Since water
is heavy, one metric ton per cubic meter, the energy required to transport bottled water is enormous. As a
result, this energy consumption contributes to gas emissions into the atmosphere. For example, Poland Springs
burned 928,226 gallons of diesel fuel in 2007 on transportation alone (Royte, 2008, p. 139). Accordingly, the
Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that shipping one million gallons of water from Fiji to New York
City can generate 190 tons of carbon dioxide, while the average American contributes over 20 tons each year
(Royte, 2008, p. 153).“It makes a neat story for the anti-bottle crowd. Water is sent thousands of miles to people
who already have clean, cheap water (us), while locals at the source go thirsty,” (Royte, 2008, p. 154). That is
odd, isn’t it?
Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute and author of Bottled and Sold, estimates that the total energy
required for every bottle’s production, transport, and disposal is on average equal to filling a quarter of that bottle with oil (Royte, 2008, p. 139). In his book, he writes, “This energy cost is a thousand times larger than the energy required to procure, process, treat, and deliver tap water,” (Gleick, 2010, p. 95).
Overall, these costs are not unique to bottled water. It takes 48 gallons of water to make a gallon of
beer, 4 gallons of water to make one of soda, and 4 gallons of water to produce a gallon of milk (Royte, 2008, p.
140). “But those other beverages aren’t redundant to the calorie-free (and caffeine- and coloring-free) liquid
that comes out of the tap, and that’s an important distinction,” (Royte, 2008, p. 140).
Essentially extracting all this ground water to be bottled has had an effect on the amount of water
available in certain locations. Water levels are dropping, or even disappearing completely due to constant
pumping. Not just pumping for bottled water use, but any use of water is creating visible strain on water bodies
(Figure 3). “Already larger bodies of water across the United States are changing in ways that worry scientists.
Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan, which contain nearly 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, have
been in steep decline since the late 1990’s, with water levels lower than normal because of reduced snowmelt
and increased evaporation,” (Royte, 2008, p. 201). Nestlé pumps 114 billion gallons of groundwater that would
feed into Lake Michigan every year, and Coke and Pepsi made an agreement with Detroit to bottle and ship
Great Lakes water (Royte, 2008, p. 201). What about the people who rely on the Lakes for their drinking water? I
am from the Chicago area, and I drink water from Lake Michigan. Our water quantity is now sacrificed for those
who purchase bottled water when they can easily drink out of their own tap.
To combat concern over the local impact of water withdrawals by bottlers, “the industry has conjured
up misleading ‘science’ to counter local opposition to proposed new bottling plants,” (Gleick, 2010, p. 72). A
2004 research paper funded by the Drinking Water Research Foundation concluded that, “relative to other uses
of ground water, bottled water production was found to be a deminimis user of ground water. . . Ground water
withdrawals for bottled water production represent only 0.019% of the total fresh ground water withdrawals in the U.S,” (Gleick, 2010, p. 72). Ironically, their conclusion was so inappropriate that the research article failed peer review for scientific publication and has thus never appeared in a research journal (Gleick, 2010, p. 73).
It is true that in some places bottling water does not have a large impact and should not be a concern,
but other places have found serious adverse impacts (Gleick, 2010, p. 74). Our groundwater is not evenly
dispersed across the nation. Different parts of the nation are blessed with an abundance of natural
groundwater, while some, like the West, are not. Imagine a large pool of water pumped at a constant rate. It
would evenly deplete. Now imagine a number of different sized pools all pumped at the same rate. In this
situation, which is similar to how our groundwater actually is, the pools would be depleted at different times. It
is not about the total amount of groundwater used, because it is not all in one pool. It is the amount used
separately that affects the local community (Gleick, 2010, p. 73).
There have been several tests done that actually show the effects a bottling plant has on groundwater.
In 2004, USA Springs proposed a plant to be built in Barrington, New Hampshire to pump 300,000 gallons of
water a day from the local aquifer. After a 10 day trial, sectionals of a local wetland were completely dry (Gleick,
2010, p. 75). In Maricopa County, Arizona, the Sedona Springs Bottled Water Company began pumping
groundwater in the Tonto National Forest. The pumping dramatically altered the flows of Seven Springs Wash
and the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, leading lowered surface waters to cause the death of native fish,
leopard frogs, Mexican black hawks, sycamore and ash trees, and die-back deer grass (Gleick, 2010, p. 75). How
can bottlers say pumping has no affect?
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Marguerite Kaye Huber
Abstract submitted for SPEA Undergraduate Honors Thesis Presentations
School of Public and Environmental Affairs