June 4, 2007
Bottle bills didn't anticipate this
The rush to bottled water has created a vast new waste stream
AMERICANS' efforts to live healthier lives are running counter to their
efforts to have a cleaner, more energy-efficient planet. Drinking more water, it
turns out, has vastly increased the nation's supply of discarded water bottles.
Jon Mooallem, in a recent piece in the New York Times, took a look at what
the headline summed up as "The Unintended Consequences of Hyperhydration."
Eleven states have so-called "bottle bills" to discourage people from
casually discarding aluminum cans. But most require consumers to pay deposits
only on beer and carbonated beverages.
Many consumers have moved on to water, which is not covered by most
anti-littering legislation. At least one state, Oregon, is taking a look at
that, and it's easy to see why.
"Americans buy about 215 billion beverage containers every year, more than
quadruple those bought in 1971," Mooallem wrote.
Many of the aluminum containers are recycled, and the same is true of glass.
But Americans' love affair with bottled water has raised new issues.
"This year, Americans will drink more than nine billion gallons of bottled
water, nearly all of it from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic
bottles, Mooallem said. "Water, together with other nonfizzy drinks, accounted
for 90 percent of the growth of the entire beverage industry between 2002 and
2005. By the end of the decade, they are expected to outsell soda."
Americans will also discard more than 2 million tons of PET bottles this
And those bottles are not a recyclers' dream. New material is necessary to
make the re-processing work, and it's all derived from petroleum.
"The Container Recycling Institute estimates that 18 million barrels of
crude-oil equivalent were needed to replace the bottles we chucked in 2005,
bottles that were likely shipped long distances to begin with -- from Maine or
Calistoga or Fiji," wrote Mooallem, who admitted that he "easily bought more
than a dozen bottles of water while working on this article."
The funny thing is that some experts don't think all that water is even about
"We believe bottled water has become less about the physical act of hydration
and more about being a companion to people," said Michelle Barry of the Hartman
Group, a market research firm. "They like to walk around with it and hold it.
Many consumers sip from their bottles of water "to mark time," she said.
"It's like their bangie" -- a security blanket.
It's an environmentally expensive habit, one Americans will have to re-think.