Facts of the Matter
Plastic water bottles damage environment
The volume of e-mail I received about the bottled-water fad encouraged me to do some more digging into the environmental impact of this growing social phenomenon.
The earlier column (Star-Bulletin, Feb. 6, starbulletin.com/ 2008/02/03/news/brill.html) focused on the water, but the bottles themselves are also a concern and probably more important in the long run.
According to the New York Times, more than 90 percent of the environmental impact from a plastic bottle is already done before the bottle is opened, because plastic bottles have a surprisingly high carbon footprint.
Production of the 29 billion polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles used in the United States (about one bottle per person every four days) requires nearly 900,000 tons of the plastic, the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of crude oil annually.
But that is just the cost of the bottles. There are other costs in the production of bottled water.
The Pacific Institute, an independent think tank that specializes in development, environment and security, estimates that "the energy used for pumping and processing, transportation, and refrigeration, brings the annual fossil fuel footprint of bottled water consumption in the United States to more than 50 million barrels of oil, equivalent-enough to run 3 million cars for one year."
There are other hidden costs of getting bottled water to the shelves. The processing of bottled water not only uses oil, but also uses water and adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Every liter sold actually represents three liters of water because manufacturing the PET plastic uses two times the amount of water that each bottle will hold.
Filling the bottles with water at the factory also uses energy.
Transporting it to the user, who could be on another continent, cooling it in grocery stores and home refrigerators, and recovering, recycling or discarding the empty bottles uses even more energy. The Pacific Institute estimates that "the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil."
Every ton of PET produced releases around three tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The bottled water industry added more than 2.7 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2006, if the Pacific Institute's numbers are accurate, and even more in 2007 considering the growth of the industry.
At end of the chain is disposal of the bottles -- only 15 percent of which are recycled -- which also consumes both energy and water.
A large portion of the remaining 85 percent ultimately wind up in landfills. There, the bottles are almost totally resistant to microbial attack.
PET plastic is inert. It does not degrade, and instead forms a strong and permanent soil base while supposedly giving off no gases or substances that can pollute water resources. Notably absent are the kinds of phthalates given off by polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics.
Taking 100 million-year-old oil out of the ground to make landfills makes neither economic nor ecological sense.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College, teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org