So What’s the Big Deal with Plastic Water Bottles?

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

by Jim Jewell

The water in your bottle may not be cleaner than the water in your tap.

There was a time not so very long ago when everyone seemed to be carrying around a plastic, disposable water bottle–including me. Now, while there are still millions of people hooked on the plastic water, we are seeing everywhere a new somber warning:  Water bottles are bad.

So what’s the big deal with plastic water bottles?

If you don’t want to read this long post, here’s the summary:

For numerous reasons, it is personally unhealthy and harmful to the environment to drink your water from disposable plastic water bottles. It’s great to drink a lot of clean water (and yes, in America and many countries the tap water is as good as anything you buy in a bottle), so instead of the disposable bottle, make a one-time purchase of a bottle like this, which will keep you hydrated without all the dangers.

Let’s dig into the details. Drinking water from plastic water bottles gained enormous popularity for two reasons. First, the marketers of bottled water convinced the public that it was clearer, cleaner, tastier, and healthier than tap water. Second, water bottles are portable and convenient. You can take a cooler full of bottled water or take just one bottle on a short journey; you have water at your fingertips, and you can just chuck the bottle when you’re done (or keep it and reuse it if you’re using the bottles for convenience, not water quality).

As a family, we’ve gone through three phases. During the first phase we were buying tons of bottled water for use away from the house. We did this for pure convenience. As budgets tightened we entered a second phase, when we had dozens of plastic bottles around the house, which we filled with tap water for use at home and when we left the house; we’d wash the bottles and reuse them until they were too beat up to be practical.

Finally, we have moved to the use of permanent water bottles, and we almost never use disposable plastic bottles. We moved to this phase because of a vague understanding that there were problems with the plastic bottles, which may affect our health and may be environmentally irresponsible. Now, we’ve learned more.

Regardless of what phase you may be in, here’s what we know about disposable plastic water bottles.

1. Personal health
Water is often bottled in #1 PET or PETE bottles (polyethylene terephthalate), which may or may not leach DEHA, a known carcinogen, into the water. Experts agree that you should not re-use #1 plastic bottles. Plastics numbered 3, 6 and 7 are worse; they contain Bisphenol A (BPA), which is suspected of causing neurological and behavioral problems in fetuses and children. BPA mimics the female hormone estrogen, which may have detrimental effects, including cancer of the brain, breast, and prostate, on the female reproductive system and the immune system in adults.

It’s a numbers game; a dangerous game. Here’s a medical explanation:

Plastic water bottles are very convenient for carting water around when we are on the go, as they don’t break if we drop them. However, it is worth paying attention to the type of plastic your water bottle is made of, to ensure that the chemicals in the plastic do not leach into the water. If you taste plastic, you are drinking it, so get yourself another bottle.

To be certain that you are choosing a bottle that does not leach, check the recycling symbol on your bottle. If it is a #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene), or a #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene), or a #5 PP (polypropylene), your bottle is fine. The type of plastic bottle in which water is usually sold is usually a #1, and is only recommended for one time use. Do not refill it. Better to use a reusable water bottle, and fill it with your own filtered water from home and keep these single-use bottles out of the landfill.

Unfortunately, those fabulous colorful hard plastic lexan bottles made with polycarbonate plastics and identified by the #7 recycling symbol, may leach BPA. Bisphenol A is a xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it disturbs the hormonal messaging in our bodies. Synthetic xenoestrogens are linked to breast cancer and uterine cancer in women, decreased testosterone levels in men, and are particularly devastating to babies and young children

Here’s more number crunching.

2. It’s a Waste
Bottled water may seem purer or cleaner than tap water, but it is not. The FDA actually has stricter rules for tap water than it does for bottled water. Tap water is tested more frequently. And since 40% of bottled water, including ones labeled “spring water,” comes from municipal tap water, it’s simply a waste of money and resources to purchase bottled water.

It does take a lot of resources to produce plastic bottles.  One group reports that 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, which is enough to fuel 100,000 cars a year, are required to satisfy Americans’ demand for bottled water. That’s because PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used in most water bottles, is derived from crude oil. And a tremendous amount of energy is wasted transporting bottled water when we have access to clean water from our kitchen faucets.

(If you don’t like the taste of your tap water or are unsure of its quality, you can buy a filter pitcher or install an inexpensive faucet filter to remove trace chemicals and bacteria. If you will be away from home, fill a reusable bottle from your tap and refill it along the way; travel bottles with built-in filters are also available.)

***If you have money to spend on water, spend it in a redemptive way: How about helping to provide clean water for those who really don’t have it? The cost of just one case of bottled water could supply a person in Africa with clean, safe drinking water for the next 5 years! That’s a great cause that’s done well by groups such as Living Water International, The Water Project, and Blood:Water Mission.

3. Environmental impact:
Another factor to consider is the inability of plastic to biodegrade. Plastic waste often ends up in landfills and waterways, where it has formed a floating patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean roughly the size of Texas!  It has devastating effects on sea life.

Four of every 5 bottles end up not in the ocean, but in landfills, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes recycling. The Institute reports that 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter.

The waste from a bottled watter habit piles up quick.

Why is the presence of so many bottles in landfills a problem? Three big reasons:

  • Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash that contains heavy metals.
  • Water bottles buried in landfills can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
  • The bottles leak toxic additives, such as nasty phthalates, into the groundwater.

It All Comes Down to This
I like this summary:

The situation is simple. Drinks from non-plastic vessels taste better. Plastic is a non-renewable resource, its manufacture is energy- and resource-intensive, and in many cases highly toxic. It does not biodegrade. Polyvinyl-chloride manufacturing releases dioxins, as does the incineration of said PVC. Plastic used in food applications can get worn and torn and eventually harbor terrorist bacteria. Plastics recycling is also known as “downcycling,” because each reiteration of your original bottle is of lower quality than the next, until at last the landfill beckons.

Glass is a better choice. I know this may give the lifecycle analysis people a conniption. I do not care. Let’s face it: In most situations, you do not even need a plastic water container. If you’re at a desk, or in the kitchen, or even at spinning class, glass or ceramic vessels are fine. There is no good reason to use plastic water bottles in everyday life unless you are a professional cyclist or mountain climber.

So instead of fretting about plastic resins and trying to keep all the numbers straight, pass right over the entire issue by using a different material. Set aside one plastic container for the infrequent times when nothing but a lightweight, unbreakable material will do. And make that material a #2, #4, or #5 plastic. The numbers are on the bottom, people.

Choose wise alternatives.
Many companies now offer re-useable and recyclable stainless steel bottles that can easily replace the plastic water bottle habit. I now have an Eco-Canteen and have been very happy with it. Other friendly bottles include those by KleanKanteen and Sigg. My wife has one of these and loves it.

We don’t miss the disposable water bottles, and we feel great about our choice to abandon them. You will, too.


Jim Jewell is co-founder and CEO of Flourish.

Comments

  1. I just returned from a missions trip to Haiti. I’m an all-tap-water-drinker at home, but there was no good alternative to plastic bottles for us on the trip, so I probably drank 5 bottles each day. And I’m pretty sure they will all be burned in the trash, which makes it even worse. Is there a good option for trips like this, when you can’t drink the local water, but there’s no recycling of plastic bottles? Or does anyone know of a recycling program in Haiti?

  2. Actually we have two water processor working there to give healthy water to the people filling their reusable bottles. The new water processor technology allow to save millions of plastic bottles. See my information at my website or just write me. Thanks

  3. Really,it’s very special collection. Thanks for your great insights. I like it.

  4. Sonalika says:

    Hi,
    From last two years, I was drinking hot water (same bottle again & again) from plastic bottle.
    Today only I came to know about plastic bottles. Now I will not use it.
    I want to know what care I have to take since I used to drink hot water from plastic bottles last two years.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Sonalika.

  5. Karen Pike says:

    In relation to the plastic containers delivered to our homes for drinking water. When these bottles are shipped in containers, stored in hot warehouses without air conditioning, left in direct sunlight, does this also change the contents, what can leach into the water inside these water bottles. You cannot drink the tap water in Malaysia. Everyone has to boil their water, or install a reverse osmosis filtration system, or buy boxes of bottled water. I have not noticed in Malaysia on the plastic drinking bottles the numbers you say are safe to use. I also worry that I transfer the bottled water into a melamine jug and melamine cups for my children to safely use without smashing. Is this also a plastic not recommended for using? The links to breast cancer from drinking contaminated water, as you say dangerous for many reasons here what is leaching into the water and the life force we supply our bodies with. And also our babies using the Avent baby bottles. I write this as having not been well, and have bought my children Sigg drinking bottles for school use, but they use the school drinking fountains. Or delivered water there as they need to refill their bottles. Which makes me worry about what I have been giving my children to use when we travel in the car, taking a plastic bottle of evian out of the fridge or here in KL I have been buying “Spritzer” water. We also have Sterling Water local company delivering our water in their bottles. We cook with this water also and wash our fruit and vegetables with the same water, and not the tap water. As deemed unsafe. We do not rinse our teeth with tap water in Asia. Always plastic water bottles are supplied in hotels and we use Ikea plastic water cups in the kids bathrooms to avoid breakages. Can you please advise if I need to stop using delivered water, from these plastic containers for my dispenser at home, as I do not know anything about the quality of the bottle containing the water and the process prior to arriving at my doorstep, I really don’t know what I am drinking or giving my children.

    What filter systems do you recommend. The owner this condo, has his total water supply to his taps specially treated and filtered and separate to any tenants here. He has 3 large gas pressure tanks hooked up to lots of interesting engineering to his separate quality hand made pipes to his apartment. For the first year living here, rust and debris flowed out our taps in our bathrooms, through the baths, so we could not bath our children, and use the showers only. And also the taps in the sinks flowed with orange and brown water. The owner has sinced re piped the entire condo after complaints over a year by all tenants, now improving the quality of the water through our taps and taking away that problem. We still have a contract to continue living here in this city, instead of returning to NZ where we had always used the tap water. Such a difference. With your article, now everyone in my house will believe me about your important urgent message for our health on the danger of plastic water bottles. Why doesn’t the world stop using the dangerous grade? To eliminate the danger. And for this information to be more publicised. I wish everyone would be educated by your information to protect themselves and their families, choosing a better way, and we can all do our bit to help recycle. I wanted to Thank you so much for your help. We are truly grateful and appreciate your posting online. Bless you for your help. Kind regards, Karen.

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