Could Plastic Water Bottles Be Better for Nature Enthusiasts?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | December 29th, 2010 | 12 Comments
topic: Detox, Eco Travel, Green Living

Polar Bear in Chuchill

In the ten years since I’ve been embarking on nature travels, I’ve seen a lot of outdoor gear evolve. Hiking boots, thermal undergarments and GPS units are just some of the items that have undergone striking advances.

But the one essential piece of outdoor equipment that has gone through a gamut of changes, caused the most controversy and been the most intriguing is the water bottle.

I know what you’re thinking: This is going to be another article denigrating the use of plastic water bottles and encouraging me to carry only the kind made of stainless steel. I’m thinking: Not so fast.

The downfall of plastic bottles

On the first eco-travel tour I ever took, which was to see the polar bears of Churchill in 2002, my guide handed out water to all of us in plastic, disposable bottles. The Arctic tundra has a dry climate, and we went through a lot of water. At that time, commercially bottled water was popular and the preferred drink for the eco-aware and health-conscious. By 2007, however, commercially produced, store-bought water bottles were ditched in favor of plastic bottles that we could buy and refill with tap water. By 2009, stainless steel water bottles had usurped the refillable plastic ones, which then became the target of environmentalists and health advocates.

water bottles

Water bottles have seen many incarnations over the years. ©John T. Andrews.

As oil (and our dependence on it) has grown in villainy in recent years, so have plastic water bottles. Plastic is commonly produced from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil. The Pacific Institute estimates that in the U.S. alone 17 million barrels of crude oil are used per year to make plastic water bottles, enough to fuel 100,000 cars for the same period. That process releases toxins such as nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide and benzene into the air, as well as 2.5 million tons of CO2 annually.

Then, after we’re done drinking from them, most of those plastic water bottles end up in landfills, adding to our garbage crisis. A plastic water bottle takes about one thousand years to biodegrade.

The upside to plastic bottles

There are those, however, who believe that the people making the plastic water bottle into an easy “icon of waste” don’t have all the facts. According to enjoybottledwater.org, a coalition website hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a non-profit public policy organization, single-serving plastic water bottles make up only a tiny fraction of the nation’s solid waste: just 0.3 percent. And those big plastic bottles used in water coolers are recycled at high rates and have even less impact on landfill waste.

clean water

No matter the container, clean water is the preferred drink for the eco-aware and health-conscious. ©John T. Andrews.

As for the water inside the plastic bottles, advocates of using them say that about 75 percent is from sources other than municipal systems, such as springs. The percent that is municipal water undergoes additional purification treatments to produce a higher-quality product that must meet FDA bottled water quality standards, packaging, and labeling mandates. And in terms of safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends bottled water for individuals with compromised immune systems to reduce the risks associated with tap water, which does have documented health-related case reports.

Plastic in the outdoors

Used plastic water bottles are in demand around the world for their ability to be made into other products, helping the economies of many nations. For example, China buys nearly 40 percent of the bottles Americans recycle. And in Albany, New York, reclaimers turn recycled PET into such products as carpets, clothing, automotive parts and wall coverings for office cubicles.

Plastic bottles are even used to make one of nature and outdoor enthusiasts’ most prized pieces of gear: fleece jackets.

Do you think plastic water bottles are as bad as they are made out to be? Are you still packing plastic for your nature travels, or have you made the switch to stainless steel?

Happy trails,

Candy

Feature photo: On my first eco-tour to see polar bears, the guide handed out plastic water bottles. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

Comments

  1. This is a tough call. Remember that piece about how it takes 1,000 years to decompose–a product we put into the environment a million times a day). Stainless steel water bottles, however, never might never corrode. It’s a fine line, and there’s no right answer.

    Humans found a way to screw everything up, huh?

    Leah | December 29th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. watch the movie ‘tapped’

    Hannah | December 29th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. Hi Candy: Always good to hear your thoughts about “controversial” topics – especialy those which are related to environmental issues. Glad to hear some positive things about placstic water bottles. I tend to re-use them several times.

    Hi to John. Fondly, Kit

    Kit Nordeen | December 29th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. Remember back in the day when we used to have those refillable things called canteens? I guess everything old is new again. My preference is the Camelback bladder system that fits inside my backpack for hands-free hydration…keeps the water cool, too.

    Art Hardy | December 30th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. In the article, you point out that, “China buys nearly 40 percent of the bottles Americans recycle…reclaimers turn recycled PET into such products as carpets, clothing, automotive parts and wall coverings for office cubicles,” and that the recycled plastic is “used to make one of nature and outdoor enthusiasts’ most prized pieces of gear: fleece jackets.” The catch is that this is only for recycled plastic. I see an awful lot of plastic bottles in trash cans. In fact, to be honest, there is an awful lot of them left in the stands and on fields after sporting events, on the floor after a concert…not even making it to the trash cans.

    Hugh H. | December 30th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. I’m very curious as to how fleece can be produced from recycled plastic?

    Jack | December 30th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. Plastic water bottles, they get all the bad press. Why are so many people soley against the plastic water bottle? What about the plastic milk bottle, pop bottle, ketchup bottle, liquor bottle, dish soap bottle, laundry soap bottle, juice bottle, medicine bottle and all the other plastic bottles that contain the products we use? Maybe, we as consumers, should demand that the bottling companies should start using the coated paper or cardboard type containers. Like the ones used for small amounts of milk. Or is it just easier and cheaper to use plastic bottles?

    John H Gaukel | January 2nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  8. I prefer reusable plastic bottles – even the stainless steel ones seem to leave a bad taste into the water. I like Art Hardy’s comment about canteens. May have to get a camelback bladder system! Sounds useful!

    Kim | January 3rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  9. Interesting. I did not know about all the uses for recycled plastic bottles.

    NineQuietLessons | January 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  10. As a bottle distributor, we take the time to educate consumers on recycle properties of different types of plastic. In the industry there are several other type of plastic other than PET, and they all have different recycle properties.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that not all crude oil can be refined for gasoline or similar use. So while there are some valid arguments about refining the crude for other, more useful use, we must also take into account they are not “one or the other”, and what the overall environmental impacts for each.

    BottlesDistributor | January 12th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  11. Hello. I must say, this is the first plastic water bottle blog I’ve read that doesn’t bash them. While it’s important to see both sides of any argument, I still think I will be using my stainless steel Klean Kanteen. The only statistics mentioned in the article were those that had to do with recycled bottles. Millions of bottles don’t get recycled and end up in landfills. Also, they leach harmful chemicals such as BPA into the water. So, I believe I’ll be sticking to my stainless steel bottle for now, but thanks for the blog!

    Emily | March 6th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. I think that the reusable bottles water are the solutions. If more persons will use reusable bottle, then the planet will be cleaner.

    Lia | August 8th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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