The extensive and resource-intensive process required to produce a single-use plastic bottle is only rewarded an average working lifespan of 12 minutes! The long production process and even longer disposal timeline clearly outweigh the convenience of this item. This article will break down each step in the busy life of a plastic water bottle to paint an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.
- THE MANUFACTURING OF SINGLE-USE PLASTIC BOTTLES FOR THE US ALONE (NOT INCLUDING TRANSPORTATION) USES MORE THAN 17 MILLION BARRELS OF OIL ANNUALLY ~ ENOUGH TO FUEL 1.3 MILLION CARS FOR A YEAR!
- MAKING A PLASTIC BOTTLE CAN REQUIRE SIX TO SEVEN TIMES THE AMOUNT OF WATER USED TO FILL THE BOTTLE. MEANWHILE, 1 IN 8 PEOPLE DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO SAFE DRINKING WATER.
- BOTTLING WATER RELEASED MORE THAN 5 MILLION TONS OF CO2 EMISSIONS IN 2006, NOT INCLUDING EMISSIONS RELEASED FROM TRANSPORTATION, LANDFILLS, OR DECOMPOSITION OF PLASTICS IN THE OCEAN.
The Solgaard backpacks marketed in the kickstarter campaign are made out of recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic collected from the oceans, so the PET plastic water bottle will star as the lead role in this story.
1. FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION
Long before our bottle or even the PET plastic was ever conceived, fossil fuels had to form. It takes hundreds of millions of years and high levels of heat and pressure for dead organic matter to convert into crude oil and natural gas, but once formed and extracted, our story begins.
2. OIL REFINING
The fossil fuels must then face the risk of spills and explosions to journey to a refinery, sometimes travelling great distances for over a month in ocean tankers, barges, trains, trucks, and pipelines like the Colonial pipeline, stretching 5,500 miles from the New York harbor to Houston, Texas. Once safely at the refinery, the fuel is distilled to separate its many components (processes vary for crude oil and natural gas). For our PET, the distillate we’re interested in is ethylene glycol (C2H6O2).
3. PLASTIC SYNTHESIS
This ethylene glycol finds itself some terephthalic acid to react with, and together they create chains of PET plastic, made flexible by plasticizers and cut into pellets, the building blocks of life for our young bottle.
4. BOTTLE CREATION
At the actual birth of the bottle, molten pellets are molded into “preforms”, which are unshaped hollow tubes that enter another machine to be blown to expand into the familiar form of our beloved bottle.
The baby bottle is then transported to a bottling plant to be filled with water and branded with a paper label glued onto the front. Once dressed, it has to travel through distributors, vehicles and stores to ultimately reach a consumer.
Now it’s finally ready to serve its purpose as a working adult. Its career doesn’t last very long though. The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes, which we can approximate to be similar to a plastic bottle.
A million bottles are purchased every minute
50% of plastic items are just used once, then thrown away!
6. END USE
After retirement, our bottle may find itself on one of three main paths.
Its consumer may try to reuse it in an attempt to minimize waste, but that is strongly inadvisable. Toxins in the plasticizers and the plastic itself dissolve into the bottle’s contents overtime, especially in exposure to heat. Some of these chemicals have been shown to be endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s communication system to cause developmental defects, or carcinogens, which is the term for cancer-causing agents. PET plastics also have porous surfaces on which bacteria that would be harmful to consume can accumulate.
Don’t drink from a single-use plastic bottle left in the car on a hot day.
Alternatively, a bottle can be sent down the long and treacherous road to recycling.
PET plastic is a category “1” recyclable plastic, meaning that it is the easiest type of plastic to recycle and resell. It can be recycled into more bottles, packaging, bags or polyester fiber for sleeping bags, carpet fibers, fleece, rope, pillows, Solgaard backpacks, etc. In fact, many states in the US will actually pay you to deposit your PET bottles at drop-off centers (often near grocery stores) for recycling!
It’s not so simple though. To begin with, only a fraction of what you put in the recycling bin actually makes it to a recycling facility, and once there all incorrect or contaminated items are removed.
“Typically, 50% of what you put in your recycling bin is never recycled. It's sorted and thrown out (primarily due to user error)” - Tom Szaky (CEO, TerraCycle)
If our bottle does make it, it will be crushed, transported, cleaned, cut, melted and reformed back into pellets or nurdles to start the process over again as recycled PET or r-PET.
In 2016, two thirds of all recycled plastics were shipped to plants in China. With China’s National Sword policy banning the import of plastic waste coming into effect as of January this year, underprepared countries are left reeling, and as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste could be displaced by 2030 if infrastructure doesn’t catch up. As it is, around 86% of plastic bottles aren’t recycled in the US, 78% in NZ, both percentages that can only be predicted to increase in the wake of China’s import ban.
Most likely, and tragically, our bottle will end up as one of the many abandoned or thrown in the trash.
Every second in the US, 1,500 bottles are discarded.
THE OCEAN CONSERVANCY
If our bottle ends up in the landfill, it will sit there for 1,000 years or more because there is no oxygen in landfills, and everything takes much longer than it normally would to breakdown. During its residency in the landfill, our little bottle will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (landfills account for 14.1% of methane emissions in the US in 2016) and chemical leaching into waterways.,
Our bottle may otherwise be collected and sent to an incinerator for immediate decomposition. In developing nations, incineration still means open-burning of waste, as drastic as flaming piles of plastic on the side of the road, and the release of toxic fumes is a major public health concern. However, contrary to popular belief, incinerators in Europe and North America are all Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants in which emissions are captured, treated, and used to power steam turbines to produce electricity. In another form of WTE, plastics can be chemically broken down in a pyrolysis reactor and reverted back into oil (hydrocarbons) to be used as fuel. In this case, our bottle would be contributing to a renewable form of energy.
Sadly, and most commonly, our bottle could join the ranks of the many that end up littered and abandoned, slowly breaking down over 450 - 1,000 years.
Essentially all litter, whether in a land-locked region or on a boat, finds its way into water systems to the ultimate sink, the ocean. 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean every year, the equivalent of one garbage truck dumped into the ocean every minute! While plastic is not biodegradable, it is photodegradable, which means that when exposed to light, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastics. These plastic fragments pickup toxins in the water and are easily consumed by marine life, accumulating up the food chain to the seafood that ends up on our plates.
We spent WAY too much time, energy, and resources creating our bottle for it to have such a short useful career and to then spend the rest of its long life poisoning the hand that fed it!
Our behavior needs to shift before it’s too late to properly represent our value of people and the planet.
TAKE ACTION: Ease your thirst and your conscience.
- Take the survey HERE to help inform future educational campaigns and put your ocean hero skills to the test on Questions 3&4!
- Invest in a reusable water bottle today! Glass and stainless steel are the most sustainable and healthy options for reusable bottles. Even thicker plastic “reusable” water bottles, like those given for free on college campuses, can still leach toxins into their contents.
- Wash out recycling. Now we know that not everything we put into the recycling bin ends up getting recycled, so do your part to improve the chances that it might be! Pay attention to recycling guidelines, and wash out items before dumping them in.
- Spread awareness. As always, spreading awareness of an issue helps increase public attention and policy-makers will be more likely to respond. Share this article via your channels and teach your network how to be more harmonious humans!! <3
 Pacific Institute. “Fact Sheet: Bottled Water and Energy – Getting to 17 Million Barrels.” December 2007.