We're Now At A Million Plastic Bottles Per Minute - 91% Of Which Are Not Recycled...

Plastic Bottles Ocean

There’s no doubt that single-use beverage bottles and cans are convenient. In a fast-paced society, grab-and-go drinks seem to make sense. Most people purchase single serving beverages without too much thought. Many of the beverages that we consume regularly are in the form of single-use bottles and cans: bottled water, sodas, iced teas, cold brew coffee, fruit juices, energy drinks… it’s a long list. Studies show that people around the world buy a total of one million plastic bottles per minute. That’s almost 1.5 billion plastic bottles per day! Our reliance on these single-use bottles is growing rapidly, and the unfortunate reality is that our planet won’t be able to keep up. Between the energy used to create them, the carbon emissions from shipping them, and the issues that surround disposing of them, they start to make a lot less sense.

The life-cycle of a plastic bottle is environmentally problematic from the very beginning. Plastic bottles are made out of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, a resin derived from petroleum and natural gas. These fossil fuels are heated up and mixed with water to create plastic. A typical one-liter plastic bottle uses about two liters of water during this process – so a one-liter bottle of water represents three liters of water consumption. Each of those bottles takes about 4 million joules of energy to create, and every ton of this plastic that is produced creates three tons of CO2.

Once the bottles are ready to be filled, water is transported to the manufacturing facilities. In the United States, many of the sources for bottled water are in water-troubled locations such as California and Michigan. 55% of that water is pumped from natural springs, while the rest is taken from municipal aquifers and then treated. That’s right – 45% of bottled water is just filtered tap water, and it takes about 2,000 times the amount of energy to produce versus using the water out of your own tap. Why use all of that extra energy for virtually the same water? Nevertheless, millions of gallons are being pumped from aquifers each day to be shipped, bottled and sold. That doesn’t even include the water that is used to create soft drinks and other single-serving beverages.

Once the bottles are ready to be filled, water is transported to the manufacturing facilities. In the United States, many of the sources for bottled water are in water-troubled locations such as California and Michigan. 55% of that water is pumped from natural springs, while the rest is taken from municipal aquifers and then treated. That’s right – 45% of bottled water is just filtered tap water, and it takes about 2,000 times the amount of energy to produce versus using the water out of your own tap. Why use all of that extra energy for virtually the same water? Nevertheless, millions of gallons are being pumped from aquifers each day to be shipped, bottled and sold. That doesn’t even include the water that is used to create soft drinks and other single-serving beverages.

After the drinks are bottled, they are shipped to retailers throughout the country and all over the world. Between manufacture and transportation, about 63 billion gallons of oil are used to supply the United States with plastic bottles each year. Studies estimate that bottles distributed only locally in California require 1.4 million joules of energy per liter to transport. This number can rise to up to 5.8 million joules of energy per liter for beverages that are shipped across the ocean.

The majority of these bottles will be discarded after just one use. Disposable bottles have become incredibly prevalent in our society. In this year alone, every person on the planet will consume an average of 300 pounds of single-use plastic. It’s easy to dispose of trash, move on with our day, and forget about it. In reality, when we throw it away, it still has to go somewhere. The big problem is that 91% of plastic doesn’t actually end up getting recycled. So, what really happens to it after we’re done?

Most of our waste ends up in landfills, where the huge piles of decomposing trash have been found to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as they break down. Chemicals in plastics can also leak into the soil and contaminate local water sources. With all of the recyclable waste that we send to landfills, the United States is quickly running out of room to store its trash.

Landfills aren’t the only place that our waste is ending up. 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean annually, and that number is steadily increasing – it just about doubles every 10 years. Researchers estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Most of this plastic pollution comes from trash that has been thrown away or left as litter, even from locations a good distance from coastlines. You don’t need to leave a water bottle on the beach in order for it to make its way into the ocean. Waste that has been disposed of can still be picked up by wind or washed into waterways by rain. This trash makes its way down inland rivers, drainage systems, and canals over time. The ocean will be its final destination, where it will stay for a very long time.

Plastic does not ever truly decompose. Instead, it gradually breaks down into smaller pieces, called microplastics, over the course of about 450 years. All of the plastic pollution in the ocean will eventually become microplastic as the sun, waves and salt slowly wear it down. Once they break apart, they are difficult to see and impossible to remove. 70% will sink to the ocean floor, and the rest end up trapped in currents. Strong ocean winds create circular gyres that move litter throughout the ocean. Eventually, the currents will bring the trash to the center of the gyre, where it will become trapped in what is essentially a vortex. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge floating trash dump, is at the center of one of these gyres about halfway in between California and Hawaii. It’s estimated that about 80,000 tons of trash is stuck in the patch with nowhere else left to go.

Plastic isn’t the only problem. Even if plastic bottles are avoided, the alternatives can present their own issues. Glass bottles, like those commonly used for grab-and-go iced coffees, are costly and complicated to recycle. Many facilities have completely ceased glass recycling projects, and several cities and states have told their citizens not to even bother putting glass in their recycling bins. Pieces of broken glass in single-stream recycling can also contaminate other items, preventing any of it from being recycled. Aluminum cans are easy and cost-efficient to recycle, but more expensive to produce than plastic, and are not as commonly used in lieu of plastic as a result.

All single-use beverages require similar amounts of energy to transport and refrigerate prior to use. For the most part, retailers keep bottled and canned drinks in coolers or fridges before they are sold. Large commercial refrigerators can use up to 61 billion joules of energy per year, and even keeping your beverages in a smaller fridge before drinking them uses a significant amount of energy. A single bottle or can kept cold for about a week requires about 200,000 joules of energy. Even just sitting on a shelf, these beverages are energy intensive.

The bottom line is that our reliance on single-use bottles and cans is not sustainable. From start to finish, they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further our reliance on fossil fuels, use large amounts of energy, and perpetuate the idea that disposing of plastics is harmless. Cutting back on our usage of pre-packaged beverages is a huge frontier in environmental responsibility. By switching our habits, we can do our part to reduce carbon emissions, cut back on excessive water use, and keep garbage out of landfills and oceans.

References:

  • We're Now At A Million Plastic Bottles Per Minute - 91% Of Which Are Not Recycled. (2017, July 26). Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/07/26/million-plastic-bottles-minute-91-not-recycled/ A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. (2018, December 20).

  • National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/ Fact Sheet: Single Use Plastics. (2018).

  • Earth Day Network. https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/ What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Plastic Bottle? (). Sciencing. https://sciencing.com/carbon-footprint-plastic-bottle-12307187.html Bottled Water and Energy. (2007, February).

  • Pacific Insitute. https://pacinst.org/publication/bottled-water-and-energy-a-fact-sheet/ Bottled Water Comes From the Most Drought-Ridden Places in the Country. (2014, August 11).

  • Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/08/bottled-water-california-drought/ The Energy Footprint of Bottled Water. (2009, March 18).

  • LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/3406-energy-footprint-bottled-water.html Energy implications of bottled water. (2009, February 19).

  • Gleick & Cooley. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014009/fulltext/#erl299478s2.5

  • What Will Happen if You Do Not Recycle Plastic. Love to Know. https://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/What_Will_Happen_if_You_Do_Not_Recycle_Plastic The US Is Rapidly Running Out of Landfill Space. (2018, May 14).

  • Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/us-landfills-are-filling-up/ Microplastics in the Ocean. (2018, August 20).

  • Nature’s Path. https://www.naturespath.com/en-us/blog/microplastics-in-the-ocean/ The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

  • The Ocean Cleanup. https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/ Jo Ruxton (Producer), Craig Leeson (Director). (2016). A Plastic Ocean.

  • Glass Recycling a Problem: Market for Cullet Declining. (2018, April 8).

  • EcoRI News. https://www.ecori.org/government/2018/4/8/glass-recycling-still-a-problem-in-ri-and-region