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The Life Of A Plastic Bottle

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Shorter Version


Est. Reading Time: 1 Minute

Our generation has finally caught on to the need to be more sustainable. We often question some of the modern conveniences of everyday life and want to know how they impact the world today and tomorrow. Let’s take a deeper look at one single-use item, the plastic bottle, and understand its life cycle (where it came from and where it will end up).

The beginning…

The life of a plastic bottle officially began in the 20th century. The mass production of lightweight plastic bottles, known as Polyethylene terephthalate, (PET) was invented in the 70s to hold our most precious liquids from water to bubbly soft drinks and juices. This convenience, however, comes at a great environmental cost.

3 paths

Once you are done using the plastic bottle, it can take one of 3 paths.

The bottle can be recycled, sent to a landfill, or end up in a waterway leading out to the ocean.

Even the best option to recycle a plastic bottle still needs to travel to a recycling plant to be processed, compressed, and likely shipped overseas to be melted down into plastic pellets for reuse. 

Skip to Actionable Steps

Longer Version


Est. Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Where did my plastic bottle come from?

Let’s now dig into a little more about how a plastic water bottle makes it to the shelf of your local supermarket. To begin the life of a plastic bottle, crude oil is first extracted from the earth and then shipped to a refinery. After it is distilled, the refined oil is shipped to a plastics manufacturing plant where, through a chemical process, the oil and gas are bonded to form PET. The plastic is melted and molded into bottles. The plastic bottles are shipped to a bottling plant and filled with water (often it is simply filled with tap water). Then the bottles are packaged and distributed to your local supermarket.

As you noticed, each step requires shipping, and these vehicles transporting your bottle of water also burn fuel and release greenhouse gasses, creating waste.

Now you might think the process to get water from your tap is also energy-intensive. Especially if you live in a drought-prone area like California. However, bottled water still requires up to 2,000 times the energy used to produce tap water.

With approximately 480 billion plastic bottles consumed in 2018, the carbon footprint of those plastic bottles was between 150 billion and 400 billion lbs of CO2 per year. That is the same as the emissions from driving about 50 million gas cars for a year!

What happens at the end of the life of a plastic bottle?

Now after you use your convenient plastic bottle you have several options for where your bottle ends up. First, we know that it is not great to throw a recyclable bottle in the trash because it will end up in a landfill. But did you know that a single plastic bottle will take at least 450 years to completely degrade? Are 10 minutes of convenience really worth it for that waste to be around for our great-great-great-great-grandchildren?

I’m sure most of us try to recycle plastic bottles when we can. But did you know that only about 30% of single-use plastic bottles are actually recycled?

There is still a lot of progress to be made.

Even once a plastic bottle makes it to a recycling facility, it undergoes an extremely resource-intensive process of being sorted, compacted, and packaged. Then, plastic in the US is shipped overseas to be processed and recycled. The current places for handling “US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation.”

Many never make it

Unfortunately, many plastic bottles never make it safely to a landfill or a recycling plant. Often this lightweight plastic can blow into a waterway and make its way into our oceans and find a new home in one of the Ocean’s garbage patches. It can end up in our food chain or on our beaches. Plastic bottles and bottle caps rank as the third and fourth most collected plastic trash items in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual September beach cleanups in more than 100 countries.

But it is not all doom and gloom, there are many things we can do to help lower our carbon footprint and keep plastics out of our oceans.

Actionable Steps


1

Bring a reusable water bottle wherever you go

Most places have water refill stations (and drinking water is better for you than other fruit drinks and sodas anyway).

2

Get a carbonated water machine

If you love fizzy drinks try investing in your own carbonated water machine (the holidays are just around the corner)!

3

Consider the container

When you do purchase a drink, consider the container (glass bottles have about ½ the carbon footprint compared to plastic).

4

Reuse your plastic

If you do use a plastic bottle try some fun ways to reuse your plastic. You can turn it into a gardening pot, toy, storage container, or more.

5

Recycle

Make sure any plastic bottles you do use end up safely on their way to being recycled.

6

Check out your local landfill or recycling plant

These facilities may be close to home, but most people never get the chance to see where their waste and recycling really go. Most plants offer tours and this fascinating experience will bring a whole new perspective to how you view your waste.

7

Check out cool applications of recycled plastic bottles

See some very cool applications of recycled plastic bottles. Did you know that homes can be built out of plastic bottles?

8

Continue reading

If you would like to learn a lot more about the fascinating bottled water industry, check out this great read, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

Still need help? Ask the coaches!

About the Author


Rachel Stern

Rachel Stern

Senior Environmental Specialist

Rachel has a BA in Economics from Bates College and an MBA from IE Business School. She now has over 10 years of experience as a sustainability professional. She has worked conducting macroeconomic research, promoting international climate finance, and is currently implementing a climate action plan for a local government. Rachel tries to live a sustainable lifestyle both with her work and at home. When she’s not trying to make the world a bit greener, she enjoys exploring different outdoor adventures with her family.


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