Millions of years ago, dinosaurs died and were covered with mud. Over a period of time we won’t pretend to wrap our heads around, organic matter that had once roamed and swayed above ground reduced like béchamel, some into a carbon-rich gravy, some into gas. Then, one day very late in our story, a petrochemical company sucked the stuff from deep beneath our feet and brought it into the light.
This was refined into ethane and naphtha, which were further refined and transmogrified into plastic, molded to the shape of a bottle, filled with water from a city tap, labeled, shipped across the country, refrigerated, purchased, humped miles into a National Park in Colorado and abandoned by the side of a hiking trail.
That’s where I stumbled upon it. Forgotten, crumpled in the dust with beads of water clinging inside its hazy walls — an unceremonious end for something that had traveled so far, but not an uncommon one.
Around the world, a million bottles of water are sold every minute, and although they’re almost entirely recyclable, most get tossed into landfills, clog up rivers, and sink to the bottom of the sea, taking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. In the U.S., more than 70% become waste.
In just a few decades, water went from a common resource many of us, especially those in the developed world, could access with minimal impact, to an incredibly popular packaged commodity with a serious environmental footprint.
Companies have had enormous commercial success selling us on the idea that water is better bottled. They have marketed their products as healthy, energy-boosting, ultra-hydrating, youth-enhancing and pure. Today, a true connoisseur can buy a $90 bottle of water extracted from melted Norwegian icebergs, while the average consumer thinks nothing of dropping a buck-fifty on 16 ounces of a liquid that tumbles — healthfully, hydratingly — from the faucet at home.
“Companies like Nestlé and Coke are taking the public’s water, putting it in a plastic bottle and marketing it,” said Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator under President Barack Obama.
In some ways, their success is the ultimate expression of modern capitalism. At the root of multiple, enormous environmental crises is an industry that has risen to a market value of $160 billion in 2019 by convincing the world to buy something most of us can get virtually for free.
How We Got Sold On Something We Didn’t Need
Bottled water dates back as far as 17th century England, where artisanal well water was rumored to possess therapeutic minerals and was often sold in pharmacies.
The first American brand, Poland Spring, emerged in 1845 after an innkeeper in Maine claimed to have been saved from death upon drinking from a nearby spring.
The idea that spring-fed bottled water could cure what ailed you made sense at a time when diseases like cholera and dysentery lingered in public drinking supplies. But popularity for the bottled beverages began to flag when cities started disinfecting tap water with chlorine in the early 20th century.
In the 1970s, as consumer trust in public water caused sales to drop, bottlers like Evian and Perrier embarked on incredibly successful PR campaigns aimed at lingering anxieties about tap water to sell American consumers something they already had plenty of.
“It wasn’t hard to convince the public that bottled water was safer than tap,” said Elizabeth Royte, author of ”Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water.” “All it takes is publicizing a few cases of waterborne illness to strike fear in a public that neither knows where its tap water comes from nor how it is treated for drinking.”
Through sleek television ads and images of skinny blondes sucking youth and vigor from a slender bottle, companies targeted a younger generation that was hooked on aerobics and healthy living.
Around the same time, a historic change in how the product was delivered made it much more convenient. Up until the 1970s, water was being sold in glass bottles or aluminum cans. In 1973, the chemical company DuPont transformed history with a plastic bottle rigid enough to hold water and capable of containing the pressure of carbonation. Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, was durable and lightweight, and, by replacing heavier containers, opened the floodgates to our current plastic waste disaster.
Selling water became even more commercially viable when, by the 1990s, big-time American players like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo realized the water inside the bottles didn’t have to come from a gurgling natural spring; it could be taken right from the city tap, then filtered, slapped with a label and sold at 30 times the cost at the faucet.
Of course, for some communities, bottled water offers a literal lifeline. In many places around the world where sanitation or delivery infrastructure are lacking or nonexistent, bottled water is the best, or only, option. It has also proven vital in the wake of disasters like 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.
And while the U.S. has some of the safest tap water in the world, public systems are imperfect. This was made very clear by the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a switch in the city’s water supply in 2014, made to save money, ended up piping tainted water into people’s homes. Even six years after the scandal, distrustful of the water flowing from their taps ― and the pandemic stalling the city’s work to finish replacing its water pipes ― some residents continue to rely largely on millions of donated bottles of water to get by.
But the industry hasn’t become an economic behemoth by providing an essential service in times of crisis. It has captured customers with big claims and bold branding.
And we continue to lap it up.
Bottled water overtook soda as the largest beverage category in the U.S. in 2016. Americans bought 14.4 billion gallons of bottled water in 2019 and global sales are only expected to grow, predicted to reach $307.6 billion by 2025.
An Environmental Tragedy
The costs associated with our addiction are astounding, but not always obvious. At a time when the world desperately needs to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels to avoid the compounded impacts of climate change, voracious production of plastic bottles is propping up the fossil fuel industry.
“As the world shifts more toward renewables and cleaner transportation, the demand for fossil fuel in those sectors is reducing,” Enck said. “So, the fossil fuel industry is banking on plastic production to be their new growth sector.”
Ethane cracker factories ― which produce the building blocks for the plastics industry ― are being planned across the eastern U.S., including a $6 billion plant Shell is constructing just outside Pittsburgh. These petrochemical plants, often built in or near neighborhoods of color, pollute the air, damage health and exacerbate structural inequalities.
“If we’re relying on voluntary efforts by the brands, the problem will get worse and worse every year.”
Flying these plastic bottles around the world also creates emissions. Fiji Water, for instance, is bottled at the source on a volcanic island nearly 3,000 miles off the eastern coast of Australia and then transported 5,522 miles to the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles as well as 60 other countries — only to be shipped again to stores and to warehouses which distribute them further.
Water collected closer to home presents its own set of problems. Although nearly two-thirds of America’s bottled water comes from municipal taps, some companies are sucking up groundwater aquifers in parts of the country where water scarcity is a serious concern. In drought-plagued California, bottlers including Nestlé have been accused of depleting local reserves.
“We are in full compliance with state and federal regulations regarding our operations in the San Bernardino National Forest,” Nestle told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “We never collect more water than is naturally available, which means, if the environment yields less, we collect less.”
In Washington state, residents concerned about Crystal Geyser’s use of local aquifers managed to press lawmakers into drafting a bill that would ban bottlers from extracting groundwater statewide.
“Pumping water out of the ground, putting it in plastic bottles and exporting it out of the state of Washington is not in the public interest,” Craig Jasmer, leader of the Lewis County Water Alliance, told Pew Charitable Trusts in February. The bill ultimately died in committee.
Exploitation of fresh water supplies is of even greater concern in developing parts of the world. In Indonesia, 28 million people lack access to safe water, but western companies still arrive to extract water from rock-filtered aquifers. Danone, the massive French bottling company that controls more than half of the local bottled water market, pulls over one billion gallons of water a year from local springs, and sells much of it right back to Indonesians.
But perhaps the most visible impact of the stratospheric rise of the bottled water industry is the plastic pollution it leaves in its wake. The bottle I found high above the plains and far from any major body of water had been alone, yet throughout the world plastic waste often aggregates into piles, swells and gyrating offshore patches. We notice it most in the oceans, into which more than 8 million tons of plastics leak each year.
In many developing countries where the bottled water industry is growing fast, plastic waste management is often tenuous. In Indonesia alone, more than 3 million tons of plastic waste becomes litter each year. Recent studies estimate that Asian coastal nations account for more than 80% of the total leakage of plastic into the ocean.
Of course, poor plastic waste management is not just a developing nation issue. In the U.S., the plastics recycling rate has actually decreased recently, from a paltry 9.0% in 2015 to 8.4% in 2017.
Part of the problem is the incredibly low cost of virgin oil stocks, said Ramani Narayan, a materials engineer at Michigan State University’s Biotechnology Institute. “As long as virgin PET can be made cheaper and there is no regulatory driver for change, it will be difficult for recycled PET to make any inroads in the marketplace.”
The Quest To Do Better
With impacts mounting so too is the pressure for companies at the root of the problem to do better. A rising generation of plastic-conscious consumers has pushed to ban plastic straws and bags in hundreds of U.S. cities, and calls to ban plastic bottles have been raised from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. Reusable bottles are slowly gaining steam, and high-tech, hands-free fountains operated by private companies are popping up in public spaces across the country.
Some companies are responding by developing ingenious alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastic.
You may have seen the green-capped bottle from Dasani (the water brand owned by Coca-Cola), up to 30% of which is made from living material, like plants (not dinosaurs). Coca-Cola is also supporting the Dutch biochemical company Avantium, which announced this year that it is working on a plant-based plastic that uses no fossil fuels and could decompose within a year.
Plant-based plastics, or bioplastics, are made at least in part from ingredients derived from plants like corn, potatoes, rice, soy, sugarcane, wheat and vegetable oil. Like PET bottles, they can be broken down and recycled into new material. Some are compostable, and many are marketed as biodegradable ― giving consumers the impression that these bottles are quickly and harmlessly reabsorbed into the environment.
But we should beware of some of these claims, said Nayaran, “The word ‘biodegrade’ has been used and misused. Everything is biodegradable, given the time and the right environment.” In truth, a bottle labeled biodegradable will likely require years in a particular environment to break down.
Compostable bottles, meanwhile, have to be processed in industrial composters, which are not always available. In Denver, near where I live, the recycling service will not take plastics labelled “compostable” and the city’s composting service will not accept plastics of any kind due to the costs of sorting and processing.
So, regardless of the good vibes you might feel reaching for a beverage with a plant-based label, chances are that bottle is still headed for a landfill, where it will stick around for a long time (unless it blows into the ocean, of course).
“Bottled water is symbolic of much larger issues, and quitting it should be a no-brainer for the vast majority of Americans.”
The real value of a plant-based water bottle isn’t in what happens after the thing has been used, but in how it was made. More than 90% of all plastics are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This represents 6% of global oil consumption, or about the amount of oil consumed by the global aviation industry. Building plastic bottles out of renewable crops may at least keep some of that oil in the ground. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic contributed an estimated 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, according to the Center for International Environmental Law.
Other companies are turning to more traditional materials in a bid to swerve plastic. Boxed Water, which sells water in recyclable cartons, is one of them. “Up until about two years ago, half our work was just explaining to people why recycling wasn’t enough,” said Robert Koenen, the Michigan-based company’s chief marketing officer. “I like to think the general public has gotten to the point where they’re realizing that plastic is bad.”
Thanks to a new plastic cap made from tree pulp, and cardboard from sustainably managed Norwegian forests, Boxed Water claims a 92% plant-based box. (The other 8% is made up of thin plastic and aluminum liners used to maintain shelf life.)
The company commissioned a study comparing the lifecycle impacts of its product to plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Making a carton of water costs about five times as much as a basic plastic bottle, but has a carbon footprint 64% lower than plastic, the study found. Boxed Water notes that its cartons are fully recyclable, but only for the 72% of Americans who live near a recycling plant that can handle them.
Other companies are going full circle back to pre-1973 and selling water in aluminum cans. Open Water, for instance, touts the supreme recyclability of its product. At roughly 50%, the recycling rate of aluminum beverage cans is nearly twice that of plastic bottles. Aluminum production, however, requires mining and refining bauxite, a clay-like rock from which aluminum is derived ― it’s an energy-intensive process that has been linked to acid rain.
Whatever alternative materials are used and developed, so long as overall production continues to ramp up, we’re still going to see emissions-intensive production and bottles, cans and cartons piling up in landfills and leaching into oceans.
While reusable alternatives exist, their use lags far behind that of their disposable counterparts. Sales of reusable bottles have increased globally, but still come in at about 4.5% of the disposable market. Meanwhile, as investment in public infrastructure wanes and publicly maintained drinking fountains disappear, people are left with fewer options.
Private companies like Elkay, which claims its hands-free bottle filling stations have avoided the use of 24 billion plastic bottles, are stepping into that void, but they offer little more than a Band-Aid on a gargantuan problem as long as bottling companies’ responsibility for their product ends at the point of sale.
“If we’re relying on voluntary efforts by the brands, the problem will get worse and worse every year,” Enck said. With time running out to address the issue, we need laws with teeth and we need them enforced, she said.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced into Congress in February by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), is one piece of ambitious legislation aimed at the plastic problem’s worst offenders. If passed, it would phase out single-use products, establish a nationwide refund for returning beverage bottles, and make producers chip in to cover the costs of properly managing waste to shift financial burden from cities and states.
Sweeping? Yes. Doable? Enck won’t get her hopes up until after the November election.
For those who don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water ― from Flint to Indonesia ― stemming the flow of bottled waste will require more than plastic bans and educational campaigns. It will require overhauling water distribution infrastructure, building latrines and funding taps in homes to offer clean, safe and free drinking water to some of the poorest communities.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The discarded bottle wasn’t the only bit of waste I found in the Rockies that day. There were granola bar wrappers, dog poop bags and even a pink polyester headband dangling in a bush. But the plastic water bottle stuck with me ― it was at once something so vital, sacred and superfluous.
We’ve been sold on the convenience of a product we didn’t need, and now we’re collectively paying the costs of its unintended consequences, cleaning up its spills and patches.
“Bottled water is symbolic of much larger issues, and quitting it should be a no-brainer for the vast majority of Americans,” Royte said. “But if we can’t acknowledge how this one tiny thing ― for which there are viable and affordable alternatives ― wastes resources, harms the environment both upstream and down, and prioritizes hyper-individualized solutions to collective problems, it doesn’t bode well for us.”
So, what’s a person to do?
Advocate, lobby, vote with your dollars, collect trash at the beach if it makes you feel better. I plucked the bottle from the dirt, placed it in my pack, humped it out of the woods and tossed it into the first recycling container I came across. Who knows where it will go from there.
HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.