The Thing About Plastics…

Popular science suggests that it takes a plastic water bottle 450 to 1000 years to completely biodegrade. To make matters worse, the compounds that common plastics breaks down to can be described as hazardous at best. The actual amount of time depends on the conditions the bottles are placed in, but the message should be crystal clear: it takes a long time. Plastics cannot be incinerated using low heat incinerators (like those used at most trash to power plants) because the combustion creates one of the most deadly gases humanity has discovered, Dioxin. Dioxin is a organic compound class that includes Agent Orange, produced by Monsanto during the Vietnam War. The greatest threat of dioxins is not the immediate deaths and ecological destruction, but the residual effects and birth defects that destroy the lives of generation after generation.

Photo by Chris Jordan, part of his Running the Numbers series.

In 2006, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a report on the growing use of bottled water in the United States. The report was full of staggering figures and awesome percentages. Like: Did you know that Americans spend nearly $11 billion a year on bottled water and that bottled water costs roughly $10 a gallon while tap water costs less than one cent per gallon. That is an inexplicable discrepancy considering the water sources are so comparable. While most bottled water in the U.S. does come from springs or underground reservoirs, 25% of bottlers simply sell packaged tap water. In truth, it is a brilliant business model: let the city do all the costly and energy demanding work to filter, treat, and chlorinate the water supply before placing it in cheap plastic bottles and selling it at hundreds of times the production cost. If you drink Pepsi’s Aquifina or Coke’s Dasani, you are most likely drinking processed tap water. If the label says “purified” or “drinking water,” that is a sign that the water is not coming from a glistening mountain stream like the image suggests.

Considering the importance of clean drinking water to our daily lives, it is quite surprising that water remains a grossly unregulated resource (in most places, if you own the land then you are entitled to the water in the reservoirs under your property). Bottled water companies exploit this fact, which is completely legal, in order to earn billions selling people their own water resources.

Manila Bay,  Philippines

Of the over 31 billion bottles of water sold a year, only about 10% are recycled. That means that 27.9 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills and oceans every year. And water bottles are one of the few recyclable kinds of plastic. Of the 7 types of plastics, only 2 are readily recyclable. That means only 2 types are worth TRYING to reuse. The rest are dumped, no questions asked.

The NY DEC report also found that every day, 30 million single-serve non-returnable plastic containers are discarded. That means water bottles, microwave dinners, takeout containers, etc, are all used just once before being sent of to a landfill to sit for 450-1000 years. Of course, that assumes these plastics even make it to a landfill. Even though the toxic conditions of a landfill are not well suited for biodegradation of plastics, it is still an improvement over the significant percentage of the plastics that end up in rivers and streams. From there they are carried off to the ocean. Once in the ocean, the litter collects with other garbage floating around in islands of trash and slowly deteriorates into tiny bits of plastic. Seabirds are known to mistake these colorful bits of plastic for food and to feed them to their young. Entire species will likely disappear before they learn that plastic is not edible. As these bits float down to the ocean floor, they are eaten by fish, adding a further stress to already over-fished populations.

For anyone who thinks that bottled water is safer and cleaner, it simply is not true. The only truth is that Americans are very easily exploited by advertisements. (If you have ever heard someone say “My clothes express who I am,” you should realize that that mentality is the result of clothing advertisements in the 60’s and 70’s aimed at recapturing a youth population that had rejected the homogenous styles that characterized previous generations.) Bottle water companies have created distrust in tap water through years of advertising, the tried and true American way. Almost all industrialized countries have high water quality standards which guarantee that tap water is clean and treated (water resources even includes traces of chlorine to prevent contamination and fluoride to prevent tooth decay).

Bottled water, by contrasted, isn’t regulated. Plus the deterioration of a plastic bottle may be slow, but it begins the moment it is created. Leave a bottle of water in the sun for a couple hours and you will be able to taste some phthalate that leaches into the water. A few years ago people were all up in arms about BPA in hard plastic water bottles, but ordinary plastic bottles are much much worse.

The solution: buy a metal or hard plastic water bottle, drink tap water, and stop polluting nature’s water resources. I shouldn’t even need to convince you.

Sources: MSNBC,

8 thoughts on “The Thing About Plastics…”

    1. I’m sorry, but I’m not sure. I got the photos of bottles from another blog that also did not report the source. I try to credit photos where I can, but in this case I don’t know.

  1. 5/22/12: Hi – thanks. I usually take care not to post or re-post images/info without
    knowing the sources and finally came up with this through a friend. The title
    is a bit sensationalist but the article does say the image is of Manilla Bay,
    not the Pacific. It also makes clear that the problem is severe.
    Thank you for responding, Janet Norris, artist from Berkeley, CA.

  2. The production and distribution of single use plastics needs to be banned worldwide. Reuse, reduce, and recycle. Pass it on.

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