We all do it from time to time. We forget our reusable water bottles at home or crave a carbonated or vitamin-filled beverage that happens to come in a plastic bottle. It’s well known that plastic has a lasting impact on the earth from production to transport to disposal. But just how bad are the one-use throwaway drink bottles? Turns out, worse than you would think.

plastic infographic

Dramatic photos of thousands of plastic bottles in landfills only highlight part of the problem. Plastic is made from crude oil and natural gas. The transportation of plastic bottles from manufacturers to consumers uses petroleum. Even recycling used bottles causes more pollution due to the energy required and the questionable results.

The Recycling Myth

Recycling plastic is one of the most difficult and destructive of recycling processes. Since it can take thousands of years for plastic to break down, recycling seems the best option. But plastic is made to resist breaking down. Even degradable plastics may not degrade as well as is marketed.

Problem #1: Most plastic isn’t being recycled. Although Americans are recycling more and more, the rate for recycling plastic bottles is only 31.8%. Landfills and oceans are filling up with plastic that won’t break down for hundreds to thousands of years. Millions of tons of plastic are thrown away in the U.S. every year.

Problem #2: Production has outpaced recycling efforts. Both in America and globally, more and more plastic is being made and recycling isn’t keeping up. It’s cheaper to take and use oil out of the ground than it is to recycle and demand is only increasing worldwide.

Problem #3: Not all plastic is the same. In fact, there are many combinations of the chemical compounds that make up a type of plastic. Recycling facilities vary in what they can process and many can’t handle most of the plastic that is thrown away. The stuff that can be recycled must be carefully sorted. Bottles and containers are labeled with a number, referring to the type of plastic. Check with your local recycling facility to see exactly which types of plastic they recycle. To learn more about what those numbers mean, check out this article from the Natural Society.

Problem #4: Few economic incentives. Since plastic is so cheap to make and obtain in relation to metals and glass, there is little incentive to spend the time and money recycling and utilizing recycled materials. As awareness grows and consumers make greener choices, companies will be more likely to incorporate recycled plastics.

Banning the Bottle

Many positive steps to limit plastic bottles have been taken in recent years and the momentum for cutting out the plastic water bottle is growing. Many of our national parks have stopped selling plastic water bottles in park stores. And now entire cities are banning the bottle. Concord, Massachusetts was the first city in the country to ban plastic water bottles. (Retailers can only sell water if the plastic container contains over 1.5 liters.) San Francisco is also creating legislation to remove the sale of plastic bottles from city property and public events. Plastic bags are also being banned across the nation in cities like Los Angeles, Portland and New York City.

Plastic products are so ingrained, our modern society couldn’t function without them. Technology that allows us to communicate across the Earth, medical equipment that saves countless lives, even components of renewable energy processing all rely on plastic. Prioritizing these uses over a throwaway container for a drink should be on all of our minds the next time we are thristy.

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