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Plastic bottles have long been the bane of environmental advocate’s existence. Despite warnings over their environmental impact, plastics continued to be used heavily. They are convenient, lightweight, and inexpensive, making disposable water bottles a low cost way to hydrate on the go.
Plastic Water Bottles
Carroll Muffet, head of the Center for International Environmental Law, states “plastics is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce.” The extraction of the natural gas and oil that plastic water bottles are made from releases greenhouse gases, and then the production of the bottle creates more. As the plastics degrade (or if they are incinerated), the carbon can get into the atmosphere, leaking out potentially over hundreds of years.
While plastic water bottles are technically recyclable, they often do not get to the correct facilities. Of the more than 480 billion drinking bottles that were sold in 2016, less than half were collected and recycled, and just 7% were turned into new bottles.
In the US the recovery rate for PET (polyethylene terephthalate), an easily recyclable plastic that can contain bottled water, was just 29% in 2018. Unfortunately it’s far more convenient to toss these water bottles away. And with an average American consuming 100 pounds of single use plastic per person, per year, it’s easy to understand why plastic consumption is becoming a global environmental crisis.
Polluting the Ocean
If we are lucky, the water bottles end up in landfill, but plastic bottles and caps are consistently in the top items found in shoreline cleanups. Plastic can take up to 1000 years to biodegrade, and a report from the MacArthur Foundation estimates that the ocean will contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025. The same study links these plastics to leaching styrene, a chemical that is definitively linked to cancer, and this can get into our water supply.
Despite the consistent messaging of how bad plastics are for the environment and our health, people continue to use plastic water bottles for their accessibility and price. However as eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bottles, both single use and reusable, become more prevalent, our use of plastic bottles may decrease.
Reusable Plastic Bottle Alternatives
Reusable bottles are an alternative to plastic that can be safe and affordable, without the long term environmental effects of plastic waste. They are eco-friendly, can be customized, and there are many plastic alternatives available.
One reason that people opt for plastic water bottles is because of the taste of the water itself. They anticipate bottled water, partly due to excellent marketing strategies, will contain much better tasting water.
But in a double blind study of 389 consumers who were given six bottled mineral waters and six types of tap water, the tap water did not perform any differently than the bottled water.
A number of companies have strategically provided a filtration system within the water bottle itself to overcome the objection of plain water. Both Yeti and Brita offer BPA-free bottles that provide long-lasting cold water as well as filtration. The filters can be used many times before needing to be replaced.
Some of these eco-friendly alternatives, such as LifeStraw, even remove bacteria, sediment, and more from water, making water safe to drink, and especially helpful for backpackers.
Stainless steel is a top choice for reusable drinking containers. They are durable, last forever, and can keep drinks cold for hours. With a double-walled container, these metal reusable bottles can keep your drinks piping hot too. Stainless steel is also recyclable when it does come time to retire your water bottle.Some may dislike using stainless steel for a water bottle because of the slightly metallic taste of the bottle. This taste generally will dissipate after using the bottle after a few cleans.
While it may be trendy to drink water from a mason jar, using glass bottles as alternatives to plastic bottles present some problems. Glass products are easily breakable, seriously impacting their portability.
However for those desk dwellers who do not enjoy the metallic aftertaste of stainless steel, a glass bottle may be a preferable option to enjoy your cold water. Glass water bottles are also more suitable as an alternative for hot drinks – just make sure they are rated for use with hot beverages, like this glass mug from DavidsTea. A glass water bottle is reusable for years and easily recycled, making it one of the best materials to cut down on waste.
Reusable Plastic Water bottles
Not all plastic is single use, and a reusable plastic bottle may be one of the best alternatives. These bottles are durable, allow for customization, are lightweight, and easily replaced if lost or damaged. They are also dishwasher safe and leak-proof, and can even be frozen with liquid in them, so long as you leave room for expansion.
If you are interested in finding a great product, check out our review of the best reusable water bottles.
Single Use Plastic Bottle Alternatives
If there is awareness on the destructiveness of plastics to the environment, and there are reusable alternatives available, why are so many bottles still consumed each year? It comes down to their convenience.
The problem with reusable bottles is that they must be refilled by the user, so there is a dependence on a source to fill up the bottle on the go, and they must be kept after use, stored, and cleaned. And if that’s the case, the rise of single use alternatives that are safely disposable may be the answer.
For those who still want the convenience of grab-and-go filtered water, boxed water may be one of the best alternatives to plastic. This paper packaging can contain both plain filtered and flavored water, is 100% recyclable, and can be refilled without concerns over plastic leaching.
Because paper is a renewable material, it is a greener option than plastic water bottles both in its production and disposal.
The downside of using these boxed products is that they are not widely available. Some companies, including Boxed Water, ship for free within the United States. They also offset their use of paper products by planting trees in National Forests, and sponsor the cleanup of over 3000 miles of beaches.
Recyclable Aluminum cans
Aluminum cans are often used for carbonated beverages, including carbonated water, so it is a natural transition to offer this material for a one time use bottle. They use 68% recycled content in the US, versus the 3% for plastic.
Companies like Danone and Nestle have already begun using aluminum cans, replacing some of the $19 billion worth of bottled water on the market. They are easy to make as facilities already exist for their production.
Aluminum cans have their own issues with the environment however calling into question whether they are the best alternative material to plastic. They are not reusable, and they use twice as much carbon in the manufacturing process as a plastic bottle.
Edible Seaweed Water Pouch
In 2019 at the London Marathon, a new product was used to replace water bottles – seaweed pouches. These tasteless capsules are edible, can be composted, and biodegrade within four to six weeks. It is easy to release the liquid – just bite down on the seaweed based casing and enjoy. The pods can be used for other applications too, like soft drinks, cocktails, and single use sauce packets.
Seaweed pouches may not be the best of the plastic bottle alternatives. They are more expensive to produce, and do not hold as much water as a traditional bottle. Because they are meant to be burst by teeth, they are not particularly durable, nor portable. Keeping them cold may also be an issue because they cannot freeze.
Still, as edible plastic gains traction in the food industry, they may become a more feasible replacement to plastic bottles.
The Conclusion About Plastic Bottle Alternatives
While no perfect solution exists to replace the convenience and cost of plastics, both the reusable and one-time-use markets are providing improved alternatives all the time.
Likely the most eco-friendly option would be an easily biodegradable plastic, which could use existing manufacturing processes with a smaller carbon footprint. This would give all of the convenience of a disposable product without the environmental impact.
In the meantime, a long-lasting water bottle constructed from stainless steel or reusable plastic is the best option.
Where to recycle plastic bottles?
PET bottles, also known as No. 1 plastic bottles, are collected by most municipalities as part of their recycling program. Some states may have curbside pickup, or a cash deposit program.
How are plastic bottles made?
All plastic is originally produced from either oil or natural gas. After heating, the hydrocarbons break down into monomers, which can be pieced together into longer chains called polymers, which are delivered to manufacturers as pellets. These pellets are heated and shaped into bottles.
What are plastic bottles made of?
Plastic bottles are manufactured from either oil or natural gas to begin with however they may also be formed from recycled plastic. Generally plastic water bottles use a specific kind of plastic called PET (polyethylene terephthalate).
Can you reuse plastic water bottles?
Manufacturers do not design one-time-use bottles to be reusable, and there are questions as to whether leaching of chemicals is a concern. The FDA has approved PET for single or repeated use however using the same bottle without cleaning it can cause bacterial growth.
Are plastic bottle caps recyclable?
Plastic bottle caps are recyclable. The plastic industry recommends that you place the cap onto the bottle before recycling so that less product ends up in landfill.