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