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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Swimming in a Sea of Plastic Water Bottles

Plastic water bottles waste vast resources to bring us tap water

I know there’s a big debate now as to why we need bottled water at all, but is anyone addressing the waste of plastic bottles by this industry?

–Bert B., Dubuque, Iowa

The plastic waste spawned by the recent astronomical growth in the bottled water business is significant. Environmentalists decry it because the water from our taps is usually as good as if not better quality than what’s inside the bottle; indeed, sometimes bottled water is just tap water. Further, water bottles are not subject to the bottle bill laws that have kept billions of soda containers — made from the exact same petroleum-derived PET plastic packaging — out of our bursting landfills.

Sales of non-alcohol non-carbonated drinks — bottled water as well as energy and sports drinks — will likely surpass soda sales in the U.S. by 2010, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington, D.C.,-based non-profit. More than seven times as much non-carbonated bottled water is sold annually in the U.S. than just a decade ago.

The fact that more Americans are switching over from unhealthy soda to water is a positive health trend. But reliance on bottled rather than tap water means that the environment is taking a big hit. Container Recycling Institute’s analysis shows that Americans have never recycled as much PET as in recent years. The sheer increase in bottled water sales, however, means that even more of the material is going un-recycled than ever before. If bottled water were covered under just the 11 state bottle bills currently granting five- to 10-cent refunds on returned soda bottles, the institute says, the PET-wasting rate could drop threefold or more nationally.

Besides being less wasteful, cutting back on the need to manufacture more plastic bottles from non-recycled, virgin materials would also have a noticeable impact on America’s carbon footprint. Some 18 million barrels of crude oil equivalent were consumed in 2005, the institute estimates, to replace the two million tons of PET bottles that were wasted instead of recycled. Other negative environmental impacts of making more and more PET from virgin petroleum sources include damage to wildlife and marine life, air and water pollution and greater burdens on already stressed landfills and incinerators.

Container Recycling Institute and others are working to get policymakers at both state and federal levels to mandate increased recycling for water bottles. Oregon is the first state to update its bottle bill — the first in the nation when it was enacted back in 1971 — to include a five-cent refund on PET water bottles beginning January 2009.

This past November, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey introduced a bill on Capitol Hill calling for the creation of a federal bottle bill mandating a five-cent refund on all beverage containers — including water bottles. The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act is now with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for review and may come up for a vote this year.

Environmentalists, however, are not optimistic that such a bill can pass, given how influential the beverage industry is in protecting its interests, which include keeping the base price of its products like bottled water as low as possible, regardless of the availability of an after-purchase refund.

For more information:

• Container Recycling Institute:

• The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act:

Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at or e-mail Read past columns at:

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