The Plastics Problem

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere: The Plastics Problem


In Mike Nichols film “The Graduate”, young college grad, Ben Braddock is given one word of advice for the future by Mr. McGuire, Plastics. As it turns out Mr. McGuire was quite prophetic, plastics are everywhere. It may have been good business advice but not necessarily good advice for our health or the health of our planet. Plastic is used pervasively but for this post I will concentrate on plastic water bottles. Many people are aware of the negative health and environmental impacts associated with plastic bottled water.

Environmental Burden

The effect of plastic bottles on our environment has been documented and although we have an awareness of the problem it is getting worse not better. There are over 100 million plastic bottles used each day globally and nearly 80% of these end up in our landfills. This means that only 20% are recycled. Approximately 1500 bottles end up in landfills and the ocean every second accounting for 2 million tons of plastic bottles that are landfilled each year.  It takes 700 years before plastic bottles start to decompose and can take up to 1000 years to fully decompose. Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (except for the small amount that has been incinerated).

According to the Ocean Conservatory, plastic bottles and plastic bags are the most prevalent form of pollution found on our beaches and in our oceans, every square mile of the ocean has over 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. Ten percent of the plastic manufactured worldwide ends up in the ocean, the majority of that settling on the ocean floor where it will never degrade.

Up to 13 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.

Some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”.

Consumption of natural resources related to plastic water bottles is another concern. Producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil and an additional 18 million barrels are used to transport the bottled water. More energy is needed to fill the bottles with water at the factory, move it by truck, cool it in grocery stores or home refrigerators, and recover, recycle, or throw away the empty bottles. The Pacific Institute estimates that the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full of oil. Bottling water also wastes water, it takes three gallons of water to produce one gallon of bottled water.  Key environmental issues with bottled water, according to environmentalist David Suzuki, are waste and uncertainty over the long-term health effects created by plastic. "Not only does bottled water lead to unbelievable pollution…but plastic has chemicals in it. Plastics are ubiquitous. I don't believe that plastics are not involved in a great deal of the health problems that we face today."

Any way you look at it, bottling water is a tremendous waste as far as resources and a major contributor to the pollution of our planet.

Health Effects: Our Body Burden


As I have written before (The Body Burden) it is estimated that each one of us carry an average of over 200 toxic chemicals in our body. Everybody is being exposed to some degree at any given time from gestation through death to toxic chemicals from plastics. Plastic bottles are known to release harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are commonly used in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles. BPA is one of many man-made chemicals classified as endocrine disruptors, which alter the function of the endocrine system by mimicking the role of the body's natural hormones.

A study of 77 Harvard College students found one week of drinking water from polycarbonate bottles increased the levels of BPA in by two-thirds (1). This suggests that regular consumption of water from such bottles significantly increases exposure to BPA. Bio-monitoring by the Center for Disease Control and other studies have detected levels of bisphenol A in the urine of 95% of the adult population of the United States.  

Health problems associated with BPA’s include, overweight, early puberty, hypertension, ADHD, heart disease, liver failure, breast and prostate cancer to name a few.

One other contaminant that is associated with plastic bottled water is antimony. Antimony is a regulated contaminant that poses both acute and chronic health effects in drinking water. In small doses, antimony can cause nausea, dizziness and depression. In large doses, it can be fatal. The longer water is stored in plastic bottles, the higher the concentration of a potentially harmful chemicals can be, a recent study states.

Given the environmental impact of bottled water, the potential health risks that we know of, and the potential for risks we may not be aware of warrants serious consideration as to your choice for water.

When we consume bottled water, we pay far too much for it in terms of expense, our health and the health of our planet. Skipping the bottle is one step toward Being Healthy by Choice.

Visit the H2O shop for environmentally safe bottled water alternatives.