Plastic Bottles by Tom Page

Conservation Corner: A Disaster in Plastic

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Water, Water, Everywhere

Plastic. What an amazing material. These days, we use it in virtually everything. Reading this on a computer, phone, or tablet? You can thank plastic. Wearing synthetic fabric? You’re actually wearing plastic. Eating right now? There’s a good chance something—utensils, a straw, maybe the food containers themselves—plastic. Ubiquitous and everywhere, plastic is perhaps most commonly found in the form of bottles. Sodas, juices, milk, and water, all of these and more come in the form of convenient, durable, imminently disposable plastic. Bottled water, once considered an extravagance reserved for the wealthy elite, has become among the most heavily marketed and readily accessible items in the industrialized world.

I recently conducted a casual survey while visiting several stores in my hometown of Truckee, California. I found bottled water in every location that sold food in any form. This includes the grocery and convenience stores of course, but also a toy store and the hardware store (where you could buy the bottles individually at the register or if you needed more, in plastic-wrapped cases). A mechanic offered me a bottle of water while I waited for him to change my oil. The same thing happened while I sat in a barber’s chair. Bottled water has it all. Cheap, convenient, and most of all, needed and desired by every human being on the planet.

Billions, With a B…

This got me thinking about how many plastic bottles might exist in the world. A little research provided a staggering answer. Apparently, on a global scale, we produce roughly 20,000 plastic bottles in every minute of every day. In 2016 alone, over 480-billion (that’s 480,000,000,000) plastic bottles came tumbling off production lines. Somebody at The Guardian did the math and pointed out that that number of plastic bottles, lined up end-to-end, would stretch more than halfway from the Earth to the Sun. That’s an impossibly huge way to describe the situation so in an effort to make it more comprehensible, I did some math of my own.

If I were to stand at one end of this hypothetical line of bottles and you stood at the other holding a flashlight, it would take over four minutes for the beam (traveling at the speed of light) to reach me. If you were to get into a car and drive toward me along the line at an average of 60 miles per hour, you’d reach me in a little over 88 years. That’s if you were driving 24-7. That’s an insane amount of plastic.

Persistent Pollution

The problem with this vast mass of plastic appears once we polish off whatever we’re drinking and dispose of the bottle. Unfortunately, well over half of these hundreds of billions of bottles go directly into a trash can or worse, the environment. One of our favorite things about plastic—its durability—becomes a problem the moment that plastic enters the world at large. Whether floating in the ocean or lying discarded in a vacant lot, plastic litter persists. The disturbing fact of the matter is that we don’t know exactly how long plastic persists because it hasn’t been around long enough to biodegrade.

In a natural setting science predicts that Polyethylene terephthalate (or PET, the type of plastic used in most beverage bottles) probably takes about 500 years or so to break down. In the anaerobic environment of a landfill—where a lack of available oxygen limits the activity of decomposing organisms—that number doubles at the very least (one source claims that number is closer to a million). At its core this suggests that all the plastic ever made that hasn’t been recycled still exists somewhere in the world.

Disaster in the Breaking

This plastic pollution presents several threats to the ecosystem. Plastic contains toxic compounds and as it begins the slow process of breaking down, those chemicals seep into the environment. The sheer mass of plastic waste in the world makes this leaching toxicity worrisome. At the same time, plastic is “oliophilic” or oil-loving which means that as it drifts around the environment, plastic waste attracts and concentrates other oily pollutants such as pesticides and petroleum waste.

Though plastic decomposes slowly, it shreds, abrades, and tears apart fairly readily. Plastic bottles, bags, and fibers from clothing contribute a tremendous amount of almost invisible pollution to the environment. Oceanic filter feeders consume these microscopic bits. Larger pieces can confuse other creatures into consuming them as well. A wide range of animals from birds, to sea turtles, and even anchovies, accidentally consume plastic. Through these accidental ingestions, the synthetic polymers of the wide variety of plastics on the market enter the food stream.

Science has yet to reach consensus on the health impacts of ingested plastic. That said, the places we’re finding the persistent material continue to swell. A recent study found microscopic plastic fibers present in both tap and bottled water. This recent study suggests that most of us are drinking plastic each and every time we take a sip.

Recycling to the Rescue?

The good news is that plastic is recyclable and more and more of us put effort into ensuring that our waste makes it into those bright blue (usually plastic) bins. Unfortunately, according to Tom Szaky, CEO of the recycling company TerraCycle, “Typically, 50% of what you put in your recycling bin is never recycled. It’s sorted and thrown out.” Why?

Two primary factors come into play here; chemistry and the economy. Plastics are complex and varied. The container our laundry detergent comes in differs a great deal from the PET of our bottled water. These items and others must be sorted and segregated at the recycling plant. If there’s no market for a particular type of recycled plastic, that material winds up in a landfill. Plastic contaminates easily through contact with other substances (recall the oliophillic nature discussed above). As a result a good deal of what could be recycled, isn’t.

Furthermore, unlike glass or aluminum, plastic doesn’t recycle cleanly. Plastic bottles made of recycled PET lack the clarity and gloss of new bottles. As a result, most companies avoid them. Two of the largest beverage producers in the world, Pepsi and Coke, have only agreed to use a percentage of recycled PET in their production lines. According to Greenpeace, the average use of recycled PET in products sits at about 6.6% for the six largest beverage producers in the world. On top of all of this, the cost for recycled plastics tends to sit much higher than the cost for freshly produced material. Between all these economic drivers, the market for recycled plastic bottles is unfortunately, limited at best.

Without this market driver, the majority of PET waste in the recycling stream winds up not recycled, but “down-cycled.” Rather than becoming new bottles, these plastics become other products altogether. The carpeting in your home or your polyester fabrics may have originated as plastic bottles. These down-cycled item aren’t recyclable themselves so the story ends in a landfill all the same.

Solutions in Steel and Glass

Perhaps the best first step in combatting this crisis comes in the form of the reusable water bottle. Nearly every zoo, theme park, and sports or music venue now offer these. You can find them in a range of quality and prices. At the low end of the spectrum you might simply reuse the bottle your Aquafina first came in. You can also find uninsulated steel or glass bottles at many retailers for a decent price. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a plethora of high-quality insulated containers made by the likes of Camelbak or S’Well among others. Regardless of the container you pick, reusing rather than single-using marks a huge first step in fighting plastic pollution.

The next step takes the form of public pressure. Numerous companies have begun to move away from selling plastic bottles where possible. The Houston Zoo for example, recently announced that they’ve stopped selling plastic bottled water in favor of reusable aluminum bottles or the brand, JUST Water which comes in a much more sustainable cardboard container. This change in policy removes some 300,000 plastic bottles from the waste stream annually.

At Safari West, we’re also trying to make moves away from harmful plastic. We’re proudly selling reusable bottles in the Gift Gallery and have a new version coming soon from Liberty Bottles; the only US based metal bottle manufacturer. We also provide water stations around property with biodegradable cups on hand. Unfortunately we still wind up providing single-use plastic water bottles in incredible numbers. As with so many other like-minded institutions, the practical realities of keeping our doors open makes the use of single-use plastic water bottles a virtual necessity. The fight goes on however, and each day we move a little closer to living without plastic bottles.

Water is a human necessity and the convenience, durability, and cheapness of plastic has made it our preferred method of delivery.  Join Safari West in working to push back against this environmental disaster. Help take care of the world and the water flowing through it by avoiding plastic bottles whenever, wherever, and however you can.

Jared Paddock

Safari West staff and conservation writer.

One thought on “Conservation Corner: A Disaster in Plastic

  1. Thank you for taking the time to research and write this article. The information is alarming and will impact how I purchase products. I will forward this to as many people as I can.

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Conservation Corner: A Disaster in Plastic