How Water Bottles Came to Rule the World – and Why They May Destroy It
By Kyle Jennings
As I walked along the ocean in Long Beach, New York, my eye caught a plastic bottle washing up on the shore. I picked it up, tossed the piece of seaweed that was stuck onto it back in the water, and continued on my walk.
I was alarmed – not by the fact that a water bottle washed up onto shore but by the apathy I felt as it happened. It had become as normal a sight to me as a seashell.
Water bottles are such a staple in our day-to-day lives that it may seem odd to even question them. Yet, at its core, bottled water is a strange concept. Seeing this water bottle pushed onto shore by the very product it sells – I couldn’t help but wonder: How did we become connected to water bottles?
The Rise of Water Bottles
It’s hard to imagine a world without plastic water bottles. Yet, somehow humans were able to survive thousands of years without them. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way?
The first records of water bottles were from 1621 in the United Kingdom. The water from The Holy Well was rumored to be therapeutic and sold in pharmacies. In 1845, Poland Spring became the first American bottled water brand. A Maine local claimed to have been saved from death after drinking from this nearby spring.
It wasn’t until plastic bottles were used in bottled water that they took the beverage industry by storm. In 1973, Nathan Wyeth, with the chemical company DuPont, patented PET plastic. Since then, water bottles have changed the world forever.
PET is perfect for companies to cheaply mass-produce a lightweight and durable bottle. It has also proven the perfect material for a global crisis in our oceans.
Soon after, industry giants such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo entered the game. Since then, the water bottle industry has rapidly increased in size. In 2016, US bottled water sales officially surpassed soft drinks.
In some communities, plastic bottles are a saving grace from contaminated water. In most, they are unnecessary.
Safety is one of the main reasons consumers choose bottled water. Yet, most tap water in developed countries is safe. According to the CDC, the United States has one of the world’s safest drinking water supplies. The country still opts for bottled water and is among the top consumers of bottled water per capita in the world.
Others claim better taste is why they choose bottled water. Blind taste test results show differently. Studies reveal that most people cannot tell the difference between tap and bottled water.
So if it doesn’t taste better and isn’t safer, why do we choose plastic bottles?
Many point the finger at marketing. Bottled water companies targeted a new, health-conscious generation. Advertisements today show young, beautiful people drinking from the now, unmistakable plastic water bottle.
Some companies even position themselves as luxury water brands and sell at premium prices. A bottle of Fiji Water is often sold as high as $2.00 more per bottle than the average brand.
The Problem With Plastic
In 2020, it is difficult to find someone unaware of plastic’s harmful effects. Yet, many choose to forget these so water bottles are still common in our society.
There has been a tremendous increase in awareness for this problem. Still, there is so much work to do. The bottle I saw washed up on shore was only one of millions. In the US, only 30% of water bottles get recycled.
In the best case scenario, the 70% of water bottles that aren’t recycled are left to rot in a landfill. It takes at least 450 years for a plastic bottle to completely degrade. The less desirable option is for that bottle to join the more than 8 million tons of plastic that end up in the sea each year.
Plastic has devastated our beloved oceans in a very short time. When I picked up the water bottle that washed up on shore, it may have made me feel good for a second. This still only made a microscopic dent in the major issue.
Entire landmasses of plastic have gathered in the ocean. These horrifying images show how deep this problem really is. One island of plastic bottles is three times the size of France. This mass is made up of 1.8 billion pieces of floating plastic and kills thousands of marine animals each year.
Poor disposal of plastic bottles is only one part of the problem. Production of these plastics causes another whole set of issues to our environment.
Many continue to stray from plastic water bottles. On a casual stroll through a park, you may notice more and more reusable ones. Yet, seeing a plastic bottle wash up on shore is not uncommon. It should be. We still have a long way to go.
Pressure to stop using plastic water bottles has increased. You are much more likely to find a refillable water station now than just a few years ago. Yet, US consumption of bottled water per capita still continues to increase.
Decreasing the use of plastic is still a very popular trend for businesses. New products have emerged to take advantage. Dasani offers a green-capped bottle, up to 30% of which is made from living materials such as plants.
Public pressure has caused the bottled water industry to decrease their plastic use, or better dispose of it. Nestle Waters pledged to increase recycled content in bottles to 35% by 2025.
Big corporations are to blame for most plastic pollution. Experts believe that it is up to government regulation to stop them. Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics, explained that “if we’re relying on voluntary efforts by the brands, the problem will get worse and worse every year.”
Environmental groups increasingly earn more political sway. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is one example. The legislation is aimed at holding the biggest contributors to the problem accountable. It is doubtful to be passed due to a lack of republican support. Still, it shows increased pressure on politicians from environmental groups.
In some places, legislation against plastic use has proven successful. The small town of Concord, Massachusetts banned the sale of plastic water bottles in 2013. The ban has been largely successful and will hopefully be a lesson to the rest of the country.
The Plastic Pick Up
The road to stopping the use of plastic and reversing the damage that has already been done is daunting. If each of us does just a little, it will make a big difference.
Plastic water bottles are unnecessary and they have already caused detrimental harm to our beloved planet. Next time you need a drink, reach for an alternative: boxed water, water filters (such as Brita®) or reusable water bottles. By not adding to the problem, you are already helping.
Advocate for environmental groups. As experts have said, the problem cannot be solved by simply hoping corporations will do the right thing. Government regulation is the answer.
Go to your local beach and clean up any garbage you see on our beautiful shores – trust me, there will be no shortage of it!
Our goal at Ocean Blue Project is to inspire change by removing one million pounds of plastic by the end of 2025. Be a part of this historical movement by organizing a beach or river cleanup in your community. We’ll help you request the permits and get organized. Contact us today for more information.