Once the consumer has consumed the contents of a water bottle and relieved their thirst he or she has two choices: 1) discard the used bottle — hopefully into the trash, which will be sent to a landfill; or 2) dispose of the bottle in a recycling bin to be recycled.
While recycling is considered an eco-friendly option of disposal, recycled plastic is not considered food grade quality and therefore cannot be used to manufacture plastic bottles or other food/beverage containers or packaging. It can only be used to manufacture non-food related plastic products.1 This means that as long as plastic bottles are being produced, new plastic needs to be produced in order to manufacture them. Consequently, there will still be an unsustainable demand on raw materials and natural resources needed for their production as this is not alleviated by recycling the bottles.
Recycling is obviously the better option for the environment, but while Norwegians have largely embraced the recycling ethic and actively recycle their waste, consumers in many other nations still discard a high percentage. It is estimated that Americans use around 50 billion plastic water bottles every year, and that around 38 billion of those bottles end up discarded on a landfill each year.2 Of all plastic bottles produced worldwide, only 1 out of 5 (20%) get recycled.1,3 So, what happens to the remaining 80%?
Firstly, there are people who have little to no respect for the environment, who will simply toss their used plastic bottles out of the car window rather than keeping them in their vehicle and disposing of them responsibly when they get to their destination. Shame on them!
Discarding in the Trash
Now assuming that most people will make an effort to discard their waste responsibly, plastic bottles may be discarded into trash bins that are routinely emptied and the contents transported to a landfill. However, depending on the bin in question and where it is sited, it may not be emptied regularly and may soon fill up and overflow. This can result in litter lying around that can blow, or be carried with runoff, into stormwater drains which flow into rivers that ultimately flow into freshwater lakes, estuaries and eventually the ocean. So no matter how good your intentions, your discarded plastic bottle may not end up on a landfill at all; instead it may end up adding to the never ending stream of plastic debris floating or swirling around the ocean.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year, adding to the 150 million tons that is estimated to be there already. More than 80% of this marine plastic debris originates from land-based sources. If plastic continues to be added to the ocean at the current rate, the total amount of plastic in the ocean could rise to 250 million tons by 2025, which would equate to one pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish!4
Both scenarios above can result in unsightly litter that is not only an eye-sore aesthetically, it impacts the tourism industry, poses a risk to wildlife, can potentially negatively affect human health, and impacts the fishing industry.3,4 (More on this in the next article of this series, which looks at the decomposition/breakdown of plastics and the environmental impact at various stages of this process.)
- Life Cycle of a Plastic Bottle.
- Ban the Bottle - Bottled Water Facts
- Ecology Matters - Marine Debris: The Environmental Effects of Plastic & Polystyrene Packaging.
- Ocean Conservancy - Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean