There’s an increased focus on corporate social responsibility and concerns about the health of our planet in general. Recycling, going “green,” sustainability, upcycling, scrapping, repurposing, decluttering – some of the names for getting rid of “stuff” in a responsible way in order to preserve and protect our planet. 

Also referred to as a circular economy, recycling is like the process of life. Eat an apple, plant the seeds, and get another apple. Recycling aims to be something like that.  

The life cycle of products is front and center in the minds of political and corporate leaders around the world. National Geographic Explorer hosted a meeting with environmental and sustainability leaders, policymakers, and innovators to answer the question, “How can we dramatically change the way we use and collect plastic to reduce its footprint across industries?” 

Single-use plastic bottles 

Plastic isn’t the only recycling issue we’re facing around the world but it’s a very prevalent one, especially the use of use plastic water bottles. They’re everywhere people are. And aren’t. Like the ocean.  

It seems like a good idea to buy a case of individual water bottles and reuse them to save money or just discard them. Drinking water is a healthy habit. And the bottles are inexpensive.  

And they’re safe, right? They’re manufactured from PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), a fully recyclable plastic that can be remade over and over into food-grade products.  

But what we gained in convenience; we’ve lost in safety. The truth is that they can’t and shouldn’t be used again and they should be properly disposed of.  

Did you know? 

Single-use plastice water bottles actually have an expiration date which can be somewhat arbitrary. It can be as much as two years from the time it’s purchased. But how long did that bottle sit on a ship or in a storage container before it got to the warehouse and then the distributor and then to the supermarket shelf before you bought it and stored it in your garage or pantry?  

And even if it doesn’t exceed the expiration date, experts warn us that no one really knows how long the expiration period should be. It may well be far less than two years – it’s a guesstimate.  

Readers Digest outlines some of the hazards of reusing plastic drinking bottles: 

  • The plastic can leach into the water inside the bottle – that you’re drinking from. 
  • The bottle can, and often does, crack which allows bacteria to form in the bottle – that you’re drinking from. 
  • The bottle (and therefore the water) can absorb odors and other contaminants from the outside air. Who knows what can get in? 
  • They come into contact with hands and mouths where more bacteria hang out. 
  • The opening at the top of the bottles to drink from are hard to clean properly and who washes their plastic water bottles? (Which would also expose them to degrading from hot water). 
  • It’s a moist environment which leads back to bacteria. 

In spite of this, studies show that less than one third of bottles and jars made from PET are recycled in the U.S.  

Where do they all go?  

Experts calculate that approximately 12 million tons of plastic ends up in oceans every year. Alarmingly, they predict that it could triple in the next 20 years. 

They’re more expensive than we think they are 

And we continue to waste money on them over and over again. Not so fun fact – estimated that U.S. consumers buy 50 billion water bottles every year! But buying 1 reusable water bottle could prevent 156 plastic bottles per person from ending up in a landfill. And it’s actually less expensive as well.  

Estimates are that an individual buys approximately 167 plastic water bottles per year at a cost of $266 and other sites estimate the cost to be much higher. In fact, regardless of how many bottles one drinks per day, the size of the individual bottles also plays a role. The most convenient and most frequently purchased size bottle only holds 16.9 oz and some are as small as 8 – 12 oz. 

Reusable bottles, on the other hand, generally start at about 16 oz and frequently contain 32oz and up. So reusable bottles not only frequently hold much more water than a single use bottle, they’re also a one-time expense. They’re clean, safe for humans and the environment, and less expensive.  

Environmentally conscious companies are doing their part by manufacturing recyclable plastic and using technology to improve the recycling process. But, perhaps surprisingly, they suggest a simple action that consumers can take.  

Consumers speak up! 

In addition to choosing products made with recycled materials, consumers can demand that companies provide them. The more that consumers demand recyclable products, the more incentive (and business necessity) that companies have to meet that demand.  

What we can do: 

  • Support legislation that requires businesses to create and invest in recycling programs 
  • Create community recycling initiatives 
  • Teach children at home and in schools about environmental issues and how they can make an impact  
  • Use cloth bags for all purchases  
  • Ask the stores you patronize to recycle  

Reducing the problems associated with plastic isn’t a simple path but it’s a step in the right direction. We can all do our part. Hopefully, that may lead to the demise of single-use plastic bottles which are far less “convenient” than we think.