Why Recyclable Single-Use Water Bottles + Other Plastics Are A Plague on Our Planet
By Matt Villano
To be honest, it’s remarkable that plastic isn’t already covering every square inch of our planet.
Recent research estimates humans have produced 6,300 metric tons of waste since 1950, only 9 percent of which has been recycled. If production and waste management trends continue at this pace, roughly 12,000 metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. Each year, upwards of an estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean from coastal regions, according to researchers. Related modeling suggests some plastics could take up to several hundred years for their compounds to break down into their constituent molecules. Some experts say it’s completely possible that many of these plastic compounds will never break down at all. No matter which data sets you investigate, or how you spin the results, the picture is bleak: Plastic is suffocating Earth.
Single-use plastic bottles are a frequent culprit: They’re the third most common item found in ocean debris and represent 15 percent of marine waste, according to a report by Citi GPS. These are the bottles you see lining refrigerated cases at gas stations, the ones you buy in 24- and 48- and 64-packs at warehouse stores for less than $5. Even when you recycle these bottles–and only 14 percent of all plastic gets recycled, by the way–you’re not eliminating the problem: you’re just postponing the inevitable.
The Problem With Plastics
Humans have been making plastics since the early 1900s. The first synthetic plastics were derived from cellulose, a substance found in plants and trees. Scientists (mostly from the petrochemical industry) heated this cellulose together with different chemicals, and that process created new materials that were extremely durable.
Today, plastics are chains of like molecules linked together. They’re called polymers. These chains often are composed of carbon and hydrogen and also can comprise oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous, or silicon.
While these minerals occur naturally in the world, long chains of them do not. Many plastics also contain synthetics and toxins that act as sponges for other toxins in the environment. For these reasons, plastics don’t biodegrade; they just break down into smaller plastics. This, in turn, exacerbates the negative effect on the environment—some plastics these days are so small they’re practically undetectable to the human eye.
Without question, single-use plastics, which comprise everything from plastic bags and plastic coffee cup lids to plastic bottles and straws, are among the worst of the bunch, according to a report from Earth Day Network, as they frequently don’t make it to a landfill or get recycled. In addition, while roughly a third of the 400 million tons of plastic produced each year is used in packaging, only 14 percent of packaging waste is recycled, according to the Citi GPS report.
While recent pushes to ban plastic bags and straws have raised awareness about the oppressive amount of single-use plastics in the world, neither push has had a large impact to date. What’s more, because we’re creating new, or “virgin,” plastic at a rate that far exceeds the pace with which we’re recycling and removing it, the situation keeps getting worse.
Roland Geyer, professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has had enough. “I think it’s a function of how many of us are here on this planet and the kinds of lifestyles we have,” says Geyer. "Everyone wants to buy everything and have everything and fly around the world and see amazing places and live to 100. You can’t do all of that without creating waste and leaving behind a real footprint on the environment. It’s time we started thinking about some of these bigger pictures. It’s time we started thinking about how we’re going to make this place last.”
Geyer isn’t one to mince words; he’s been studying the impacts of plastics in the environment for the better part of three decades. The bottom line: Plastics are up there with climate change as one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. (And indeed, the two are linked: When exposed to the elements, plastic releases methane and ethylene, two greenhouse gases that can worsen climate change, according to a study from University of Hawaii.)
Unless we take drastic action now, scientists expect that the amount of plastic littering the world’s oceans will triple within a decade. The Pacific garbage patch covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers--that’s equivalent to twice the size of Texas. Mike Osmond, senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund, added that whales and turtles regularly wash up on beaches all over the world with stomachs full of plastic.
“In a large albatross colony in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, albatross are seen feeding plastics to their chicks, which obviously die soon after,” Osmond wrote in an email from his San Francisco office. “Microplastics are now making their way into the human food chain, with seafood that’s consumed by humans being contaminated.”
How do even recyclable varieties of plastic end up bobbing around in our seas? While the greatest volume of pollution is created by systemic dumping, around the world, we have large populations living in coastal areas, generating litter that is often mismanaged. Consider how easy it is for a water bottle to get blown out of a garbage receptacle, or carelessly left behind. This is why cleaning up our oceans requires a combination of local and global initiatives.
Potential Paths Forward
Though we likely won’t reverse the current “plastipocalypse,” there are some steps we can take to stem the tide. Perhaps the easiest solution: Eschew buying single-use plastic bottles and instead invest in a home filter system, like a Brita pitcher with a Longlast system filter. Use it to fill reusable bottles at home and it will filter the equivalent of up to 1,800 single-use water bottles a year.
Recycling reduces the prevalence of plastics in our environment, but only if we commit to it consistently, all the time and all over the world. In a paper published in Science Advances in July 2017, three researchers estimated that 90.5 percent of all plastic waste ever made has never been recycled—a truly staggering number. A broader (and more hard-core) solution: Sever all dependence on plastics completely.
Policy changes might help, too. For instance, Peru banned visitors from carrying single-use plastics into Machu Picchu as a response to tourists leaving literally tons of garbage behind at natural and cultural protected areas.
Then, of course, there are the business solutions. The Plastic Bank, a Vancouver, B.C.-based economic development firm founded by David Katz, seeks to establish in poor communities a monetary system for plastic to be used like cash, so people see it as valuable. Another option: Renewlogy, a Salt Lake City-based startup that has commercialized a strategy for breaking down certain kinds of plastic into its chemical components.
Renewlogy CEO and Founder Priyanka Bakaya, says her company’s process returns plastic to its molecular levels, breaking it down into small carbon chains that can be used to make new products. “Currently we have linear economy—we’re making these virgin plastics, we use them, then they go to the landfill and back into the environment,” she says. “For us the key is creating circular economy so at the end of a plastic’s life we can take it back, break it down, and use to make a virgin plastic again.”
None of these options will work on its own. To even begin easing our plastic waste problem, we will have to embrace many if not all these solutions—and then some. If stemming climate change rests on the shoulders of government and corporations, reducing single-use plastic waste rests on us. We can pledge to buy zero disposable plastic water bottles, choose sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics whenever possible and encourage brands to evolve by making packaging a deciding criteria when we shop. Our individual, daily choices have a profound impact on our planet and its oceans, now more than ever.