Wednesday, August 08, 2007

think before you buy a drink

Out of 50 billion plastic water bottles used in the U.S. last year, only 23% were recycled. The rest (38 billion) ended up in landfills.

A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health. Its packaging and transport depend entirely on cheap fossil fuel. Yes, it's just a bottle of water--modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don't need--when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation--it's worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest.

This is a perfect case study for an environmental life cycle analyst. Bottled water consumption has become an expensive habit on our wallets and the environment.


JillO said...

And it takes about 400 years for a plastic bottle to disintegrate in a landfill. Some companies are starting to produce corn-based compostable bottles for bottled water like Biota:, but demand for these types of products still isn't high enough to gain mass distribution.

I work for Virgin Mobile and we just replaced 225,000 plastic beer cups with corn-based compostable ones. You couldn't even tell the difference, but the landfills sure did.

Also, big props to California government for banning the purchase of bottled water!

Surya Swamy said...

just to clarify, the ban was recently passed in San Francisco prohibiting the use of city funds to purchase plastic bottles and the sale of such bottles on city owned property.

EPA has some useful information on tap water for those concerned.

Dody G. said...

And some economists pointed out that recycling plastic bottle doesn't make financial nor environmental sense.

Prabs said...

I read an article recently that said that newspapers don't disintegrate properly in landfills. The researchers could read the print of 1970s! To disintegrate you need air and water, which the landfill usually does not offer.

So in my eyes, transferring from plastic to other materials is important, but that alone would not provide a solution to the problem.

A lot of bottled water comes from France, which basically does not make sense. Tap water in US is good in most parts and nothing that a small filter cannot fix. We need to stop wasteful consumption.

I like the model that Europe has on waste disposal - pay as you throw. If implemented in the US, I think it will have a substaintial impact on the problem.

The article below makes interesting reading. It is on the waste disposal model in Japan, where residents are required to categorize waste into 44 different categories before taking out the trash :)