Plastic Watch: Water Bottle Alert!

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Earthwatch Institute has just released a report on the continuing fouling of European rivers with plastic.

One could look at this as a glass half full story. One in which efforts to ban plastic bags, and drinking straws, have succeeded – since as the Earthwatch report indicates, these no longer comprise significant sources of plastics pollution in European waters. Alas, that doesn’t mean these waters are otherwise free of significant plastics waste. And that’s a huge problem – as it’s estimated that 80% of riverine waste ultimately ends up in the world’s oceans.

The biggest current problem: plastic water bottles. Now, I well know it’s not possible to eschew completely buying bottled water. As regular readers know, I’m frequently on the road, in various places where drinking the local water is simply not on. So I understand that one must make certain accommodations to local situations.

That being said,the bad local water problem is not an issue in most places in Europe – where these bottles are accumulating. People in Europe buy bottled water not out of necessity, but as a  matter of choice.

The easy answer: stop buying water in plastic bottles. Period. Completely.

Understand, I’m not saying that people should stop buying bottled water. But that it’s imperative to stop buying water packaged in plastic.

In the UK, according to Earthwatch, the average person uses 150 plastic water bottles each year. That means:

5.5 billion plastic bottles are littered, incinerated or sent to landfill each year, producing 233,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

As I’ve written before, the recycling fairy provides no solution either. China’s decision to stop accepting recycling imports has made it clear that “recycling” has long been a euphemism for shipping waste problems elsewhere.

This is completely unnecessary. A complete ban on plastic water bottles implemented in the US or EU alone could certainly help reduce the plastics problem. The bottled water issue is not so simple to address in those places where drinking local water makes people ill. But I should also note that some of these places, e.g., India, the current recycling rate is 70% for PET bottles, as Business Standard reports in PET bottles have a 70% recycle rate in India, for good reason.

As Earthwatch notes, 65% of people would be more likely to use a reusable water bottle if tap water refills were freely available. Whatever happened to water fountains? When I was growing up, these were plentiful – and early accessible.

As Treehugger reports in Plastic bottles are the most common litter in European waterways plastic water bottles are only part of the problem. Water bottles comprise 14% of waste, followed by food wrappers (12%) cigarette butts (9%), food takeaway containers (6%), cotton bud sticks (6%), and cups (4 %).

I’ll mention here that I’m not impressed by the latest Starbucks virtue signalling exercise to  encourage paper cup recycling, as reported in the Guardian, Starbucks spearheads £1m initiative to boost paper cup recycling. All the waste generated in store should already be recycled – I don’t understand what Starbucks is waiting for. This is not per se a difficult issue and the company could easily move to a more sustainable waste management policy – but has chosen not to do so.

NYC Initiatives

On the other side of the pond, NYC understands that the plastics issue is ultimately one of opposition to Big Oil, aka, the plastic pushers, as Waste Dive reports in Scrap Collector: NYC drops plastic in stand against ‘Big Oil’:

Enjoy those plastic forks while you still can, NYC government employees. Per an executive order signed Thursday by Mayor Bill de Blasio, agencies will now be required to end approximately 95% of single-use plastic foodware purchases in favor of compostable or recyclable alternatives. It’s a big deal for a city that purchases at least 1.1 million pounds of single-use plastic foodware each year — in addition to decreasing plastic pollution and reducing risks to wildlife​, the administration estimates Executive Order 42 will cut down New York’s carbon emissions by approximately 500 tons per year.

“Big Oil has been pushing single use plastics for too long — and it stops here,” de Blasio said in a statement. “They litter our beaches and parks, jam our recycling machines, and contribute to climate change. Our actions today will help us build a fairer city for all New Yorkers.”

….

De Blasio also announced Thursday his support for pending legislation to reduce single-use plastic foodware in private establishments — and his intent to work with the New York City Council to ensure the legislation includes appropriate accommodations for individuals who are unable to use non-plastic options.

The directive represents New York’s latest effort to tamp down on petroleum-based products. In addition to banning single-use foam products, the city is currently divesting its pension funds from fossil fuel reserve owners and suing five fossil fuel companies for the billions of dollars that will be spent to protect New Yorkers from the effects of climate change. It’s also committed to doubling pension fund investments in climate change solutions to $4 billion by 2021 — roughly 2% of the city’s $195 billion pension portfolio — and reducing carbon emissions at least 80% by 2050.

I think NYC is on the right track here. Banning single-use plastics of various sorts means unnecessary waste isn’t created in the first instance. Creating these plastics contributes to climate change. This is low-hanging fruit. I understand there are powerful interests that push plastics. Where’s the necessary resistance?

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36 comments

    1. Yikes

      Yeah, the phthalates in the plastic bottle.

      Since Nestle and most other water sellers like Coke, are just bottling post-treated tap water, they could just sell it from a dispenser, but that ruins the mystique (IE: fooling most of the morons people most of the time).

      Reply
  1. JEHR

    When the snow melts where I live, it uncovers a whole new crop of cans, bottles, various waste products including paper bags, cardboard, etc. It’s so revolting.

    Reply
  2. Cal2

    Massive refundable deposit is the answer to bottle litter. Like One Pound each in England. Or, two dollars each in the U.S. That will assure that they don’t get dumped and are returned to the store that sold them, then on to the distributor, then the plant where they were filled.

    It worked for a century or more with refillable glass bottles. Even old wine bottles that were recycled by trashmen in San Francisco, then cleaned and refilled.

    When I was a kid, we made money returning empty and dumped glass bottles to the store. They were refilled. There was no bottle litter, except ones that tragically got broken.

    Once plastic bottles are returned for their deposit, they can be ground up and reused at the expense of the manufacturer, especially the biggest villain of all, Coca-Cola, that always blabs about how their bottles are ‘recyclable’ or ‘compostable.’
    –OK, put your manufacturing money where your P.R. mouth is, show us how you do that at your factory. Or, start putting your product in high quality refillable glass bottles like you used to do.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      The interesting thing about the old glass drink bottles is that they were generally made in regional factories serving the regional bottlers. There are collectible glass pop bottles from all over. I have some made in Jackson Mississippi from a hundred years ago. Also one or two from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and curiously, Bogalusa, Louisiana.
      As an example, (not my one,): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/stories/73543-indian-head-coca-cola-bottle-from-bogalu
      A return to glass might make sense from an environmental point of view. However I found nothing, on a short search, concerning the difference in the ‘carbon footprints’ between plastic and glass bottles.
      On a strictly socio-economic outlook, a return to returnable bottles with deposits would help a little bit in redistributing income. Usually, the young, and the down and out used to do a lot of the scavenging and returning of bottle litter. This idea is a win win proposition from a social viewpoint. That it does not gain traction today is a measure of how financialized the entire society has become.

      Reply
      1. Cal2

        The total environmental footprint of a glass returnable versus disposable plastic bottle has to take into account. The inert quality of glass when dumped in the environment versus plastic for example; one becomes sand on a beach, the other fragments that poison wildlife and become part of the our foodchain.

        Glass weighs more and that weight would have to be trucked to and from the bottling plant, if reused, using more fuel,than one way plastic, which made from oil or gas.
        Think of the associated costs of drilling for fossil fuels. Mining sand and using natural gas to melt it for glass is a environmental burden. Nothing is energy free.

        Reply
    2. John k

      Or just a small tax, say $0.10, on each minor plastic item, such as straws and forks, plus maybe a quarter on containers, paid by the seller… this would change what sellers choose to provide at fast food outlets. Note some already provide paper based products.
      Individuals buying a box of them pay the same tax… pretty soon they make other choices, too.
      I think a tax is better than rules, it allows a gradual change… and if not enough respond, boost the tax.
      But gov can help (use the tax) by providing plentiful water fountains with refilling options.

      Reply
    3. drexciya

      True, but the problem is the power of the big companies. I have read that in The Netherlands the refundable deposits for one time use bottles was removed, because of lobbying by corporations. The re-usable bottles still have a deposit on them. There’s been an increased demand for re-instating the refundable deposits, but this has, for now, been blocked.

      Reply
  3. Ignacio

    That being said, the bad local water problem is not an issue in most places in Europe – where these bottles are accumulating. People in Europe buy bottled water not out of necessity, but as a matter of choice.

    True! And there is business on this also. For instance in restaurants. When we dine out and are asked what to drink my wife always says “a jar of water please” and in some cases the waiter/waitress says “sorry we do not serve jars”. That’s when we wake up and leave the restaurant (our children’s eyes in horror and shame). But I leave with a phrase “I don’t mind the cost, it is the plastic bottle, I hate them”.

    Reply
  4. ChiGal in Carolina

    I agree that more readily available stations for refilling bottles made of acceptable materials would help a lot. I drink a lot of San Pellegrino at home and always get the glass bottles.

    But water that is bad for drinking is no longer confined to the third world, or rather, the third world is US: in Flint, MI and countless other cities with corroded lead pipes, in the many rural areas where industry has fouled rivers and streams and groundwater and the water table (in NC alone, Duke Energy anyone? how about overflowing hog waste “ponds” every year when the hurricanes hit?), no, it is not safe to drink the water.

    Reply
    1. upstater

      Inquire what happens to glass bottles for recycling. Many municipalities mix glass colors and simply grind it up and mix with asphalt pavement.

      Very few glass containers in the US are reused.

      And drinking water from Italy has a ginormous carbon footprint.

      Reply
      1. ChiGal in Carolina

        Ouch, the carbon footprint. I really like carbonation and don’t drink flavored water, not do I want bottled tap water. I wonder if there is genuine spring water bottled in the US.

        Glass ground into asphalt seems a perfectly good application. Glass is made from sand, is it not?

        Reply
  5. drexciya

    The problem is very simple; in The Netherlands tap water is, generally speaking, very very good. However in other European countries tap water is relatively bad (as in heavily chlorinated most of the time), so people buy bottled water. The reason for this, was explained in a documentary about privatizing water companies; it’s cheaper, since you don’t need to invest as much in the quality of water piping.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith

      You don’t need plastic to get bottled water. You can get large glass containers and decant that into smaller reusable non-plastic bottles.

      And the cities could invest in better water purification and/or you can filter your water. A simple Brita filter removes chlorine. A lot cheaper and less nasty to the environment than plastic bottles.

      Reply
      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        I was in Barcelona just after Christmas one year and drank lots of local bottled water, packaged in lovely heavy cobalt blue glass bottles. Can’t recall the brand name off the top of my head. The bottles are reusable, and so beautiful that I tucked 4 of them into my suitcase. I’m still using these bottles. I fill them with filtered water and store them in the refrigerator.

        Reply
        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          More info: I just did a bit more research and identified the company that packages its water in such exquisite bottles:

          Solán de Cabras

          Aren’t they beautiful?

          The sustainability mantra is reduce, reuse, recycle. I acquired these ‘disposable’ bottles in 2016, and refill them every day. They’ve now been reused hundreds of times — probably thousands, actually.

          Reply
          1. Ignacio

            Some people I know order specifically Solán de Cabras at restaurants being one of the most liked water brands. They also sell blue plastic bottles. Anyway I always prefer tap water. The environmental cost of water bottling is too high.

            Reply
      2. Harry Shearer

        Does Brita have the technology to filter out the residues of psychoactive and/or other pharmaceutical products urinated upstream?

        Reply
    2. Acacia

      I agree with drexciya and take issue with the blanket statement about water quality being made in this article.

      When I lived in France, I and pretty much everybody I knew had a Brita filter. The tap water was not good. Very hard water (gives you stones) and where I lived the building main pipes were lead.

      Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      In the 19th century there were plenty of places that drank beer as it was safer to drink that the local waters. Come to think of it, in ancient Mesopotamia they drank beer as their main go to drink so perhaps the same reasoning applied.

      Reply
      1. Synoia

        Thank you. And beer comes in Glass bottles or recyclable cans.

        Draft beer is best. FYI before someone winges about “warm” beer in the UK, no the English do NOT drink warm beer. Beers is server at Cellar temperature, about 40 def F.

        No one wants Iced drinks in that climate.

        Reply
  6. Joe Well

    I was a school teacher at a school (outside the US) that had a snack bar where the students could buy sugary soft drinks.

    One year, there was a campaign to get them to stop drinking that, so they bought bottled water.

    Then, there was a campaign to ban selling bottled water on campus and just get every student to bring a bottle, for the reasons mentioned above. This was hard to pull off since the snack bars were a private concession, so it meant renegotiating the contract.

    The students went back to buying soft drinks.

    Why bottled water or soft drinks rather than tap water? The school’s tap water was filtered well water that tasted fine and was safer than bottled water (something the school emphasized to students and parents).

    Because bottled water is cold. And still tastes better than even very high quality tap water, I assume because they are controlling the taste and engineering for it. And you don’t have to remember to carry around a bottle.

    We need to make drinking fountains that are refrigerated and have the same level of taste engineering as Dasani. But I’d bet that many brilliant minds at schools and organizations the world over would object to spending a few thousand dollars a year for such a system. A case of central planning failure to properly price things, I think. Also, how so much of environmentalism is anhedonic moralizing. A central question is not being asked: how can we give people something that is almost as good as or better than Dasani but doesn’t harm the environment?

    Reply
    1. ChiGal in Carolina

      What’s so good about Dasani? Isn’t it just regular water packaged in plastic bottles by Coke? It isn’t spring water or anything as far as I know.

      Reply
      1. Joe Well

        Who cares if it comes from a spring? But if it’s a Coca Cola product I would bet they’ve done extensive taste testing. They’re not just bottling tap water, they’re doing *something* to it. And what you or I think tastes good matters less than what a certain critical mass of consumers prefers.

        Reply
  7. Elizabeth

    I’ve never understood the idea of drinking water from a plastic bottle . I think I’ve only purchased two bottles in my entire life – which I needed to take medication in an airport. I remember reading where bottled water contained some rather nasty stuff, plus the plastic isn’t healthy. Where I live the tap water is heavily chlorinated, but we have a water filtration system which we use for drinking, cooking etc. There are many nice non-plastic containers for water – yes, Jerri-Lynn – those blue bottles are lovely. Maybe we need a new marketing campaign.

    Reply
    1. Joe Well

      Just today I was at a nonprofit botanical garden, no drinking fountain, so it was either put my head under the men’s room sink faucet or buy a bottle. They had flavored water in glass bottles but not plain water.

      Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for sharing this. The situation is a bit more complicated I think. Until China ceased taking recycling imports in 2018, followed more recently by India, much European and US recyclables were not actually recycled but simply shipped to these and other Asian or developing country destinations for further processing. (Dr. Summers, please pick up the white courtesy ‘phone.)

      That means we can’t really say how much of the waste that’s ended up in these Asian rivers actually emanated in Asia.

      While I was prepping for the RNN interview Yikes linked to above, I learned that China was taking 45% of all world recyclable imports since the mid-90s – and 2/3 of world plastic waste in 2016, according to National Geographic, Plastic Recycling Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.

      Reply
  8. timbers

    Suggestion:

    1). Get your city’s water report. Mine mails me a water report every year. Think it’s required by law. Make sure your water is good by that report.

    2). Find out what kind of chlorine your city uses. My uses the “old” chlorine that evaporates in about 24 hours once drawn from the tap. Others may use the “new” chlorine that can take weeks to evaporate.

    3). If your lucky and have the old chlorine, just get a container, fill it with tap, and put in frig. If you’re not lucky, you’ll need to filter the chlorine to get it out of your water.

    Reply
  9. Octopii

    I don’t see much trash or waste at all on the waterways of rural France. It’s magical compared to the US. Even Paris is nothing like, say, Baltimore in terms of waterway trash.

    Reply

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