How Single-Use Plastic Water Bottles Pollute Surface Water

Disposable plastic water bottles have become a symbol of quick and easy hydration. With a twist or pop of the cap, you can quench your thirst at home or on the go. But what happens to these bottles once we’re done with them?

Of the whopping 35 billion empty water bottles thrown away in the US yearly, only 12% get recycled. The rest often ends up in oceans, dump sites, beaches, and other areas. Now we know why US landfills are overflowing with over 2 million tons of discarded water bottles, and scientists estimate the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

As more and more people embrace the convenience of using throwaway plastic water containers, it’s crucial to understand how this “use and toss” habit is hurting our planet. Let’s start by exploring the life cycle of a plastic bottle, then explain why such a small percentage gets recycled, and how it contaminates our precious surface water sources.

The Lifecycle of a Single-Use Plastic Water Bottle

Sourcing—What are Plastic Water Bottles Made Of?

The lifecycle of plastic water bottles begins underground, where oil and gas are extracted from deep beneath the earth’s surface. These fossil fuels are refined in facilities using extreme temperatures and massive amounts of water.

Manufacturing—How are the Bottles Made?

After being refined, the fossil fuel is transported to another facility, where it is transformed into pellets made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a cheap, durable, and lightweight plastic material. These PET pellets are melted until they become soft and malleable. Afterward, they are molded into water bottles of various shapes and sizes, ready to be shipped to bottling plants.

Distribution—Bottling and Transportation

At the bottling plant, the bottles are filled, sealed, labeled, and then packaged into larger containers for distribution to grocery stores and other vendors. Usually, bottled water is delivered from the plant in bulk by truck, ship, or rail to the retailer. The merchandise is stocked on shelves ready to be bought by consumers. Once purchased, the bottled water is typically brought home, where it’s used for various purposes.

Disposal/Recycling—Where Do Disposable Water Bottles End Up After Use?

As mentioned earlier, only 12% of plastic water bottles get recycled. Typically, these bottles are collected and sorted by plastic resin type, washed to remove contaminants, and shredded into small flakes that are melted down to form pellets and used as raw material for manufacturing new plastic products.

But Why Are Most Plastic Water Bottles Not Being Recycled in the US?

Recycling plastic bottles seems like a logical step to reduce waste and environmental impact, yet in the United States, most end up in landfills or oceans. There are several reasons for this.

Insufficient recycling resources. The US often exports tons of plastic waste overseas for recycling, mainly to China. The waste that remains behind often can’t be processed efficiently, as the country doesn’t have enough processing plants compared to the number of recyclable items produced. Most plants are privately owned and expensive to run, so there is not enough to handle the massive influx of plastic bottles. Adding to this ordeal is China’s “National Sword” policy, which officially bans post-industrial plastic from being imported from the US.

Not all plastic is recyclable. Not all plastic water bottles are made of the same type of plastic. Some are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is easy to recycle and can be turned into new bottles, clothing, or carpets. Others are made of HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which is also recyclable but less valuable and harder to process. Some are made of other types of plastic, like PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PS (polystyrene), which are not recyclable and can be toxic when burned. So, while you might be doing your part by recycling, the truth is that only a tiny fraction of the plastic pieces can be sorted, processed, and turned into something new.

Plastic water bottle recycling consumes a lot of resources and energy. The bottles must be collected, sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted, and molded into new products. This process consumes water, electricity, fuel, and chemicals. Sometimes, making new plastic from oil can be cheaper and easier than recycling old plastic.

Producing bottled water requires a whopping 17 million barrels of oil annually in the US. That’s enough to fuel a million cars yearly. But it’s not just about the numbers—it’s also about the environment. This much oil extraction depletes our limited fossil fuel reserves (a finite, nonrenewable resource) and adds more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, worsening environmental issues.

Furthermore, the entire manufacturing process requires excess energy. Heating, melting, and shaping plastic require substantial amounts of electricity, oil, or natural gas, contributing to carbon emissions and other environmental pollution issues. Besides, it takes two liters of water to produce a single-liter bottle. Add another liter to fill the bottle, and you’re at a 3:1 liter ratio of water used to fill just one bottle.

The plastic must be cleaned before it can be recycled. Say you wanted to recycle an empty plastic bottle you used to store cooking oil, but some residue remains. You might assume it will get washed and recycled, but that’s not always the case. Every plastic bottle that gets recycled needs to be sorted and cleaned. Why? Because it only takes a tiny bit of contamination to turn an entire batch of PET resin into unusable trash. Recycling is an energy-intensive process that becomes more costly as additional steps, such as post-consumer selection and washing, are added.

It depends on consumer behavior and infrastructure. People must be willing and able to recycle their bottles, which means they need access to recycling bins, programs, and facilities. Unfortunately, not all places have these options, or they are inconvenient or confusing. Some people also don’t care about recycling or don’t know how to do it properly. For example, they might throw away the bottle caps, which are usually made of a different type of plastic than the bottles and can contaminate the recycling stream.

What Happens to Plastic Water Bottles That Aren’t Recycled?

Plastic water bottles meant to be recycled can sit and collect in warehouses for years. And as you probably know, plastic can take a long time to break down—like 450 years. Plastic bottle waste tossed into regular trash cans and picked up from the environment are sent to landfills.

Because empty plastic bottles are usually lightweight, they’re likely to blow from landfills and streets or be carried away by rainwater into rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. The plastic can break down into tiny bits called microplastics, polluting surface water bodies and harming plants, animals, the environment, and even humans.

Effects Of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life

Once microplastics enter water sources, they become a persistent issue for marine life. These tiny particles are incredibly durable and can remain suspended in the water for extended periods.

Because the plastic debris is shiny and small enough to be ingested, marine animals, from tiny plankton to turtles and seabirds, may mistake the plastic debris for food, causing internal injuries, blockages, and malnutrition once eaten. As the plastic particles move up the food chain, they can accumulate in higher quantities in larger predators, including fish caught for human consumption. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), around 700 species of sea animals have been found to have ingested plastic.

Effects of Microplastics in Drinking Water on Human Health

As explained in a previous article, microplastics can also end up in surface water sources and, ultimately, drinking water. These plastic bits can introduce toxic chemicals into the water, as they often absorb pollutants from their surroundings. If not filtered out, we might consume them unknowingly, potentially introducing various contaminants into the body. Usually, it’s not the plastic that’s the main threat, but the bioactive chemicals added to enhance its appearance and functionality.

BPA, in particular, is an endocrine disruptor that mimics hormones, altering their production, transport, and function. It’s linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fetal brain development issues, breast and prostate cancer, asthma, and reproductive disorders. Phthalates, another ingredient in plastics, are endocrine disruptors linked to reduced testosterone, altered development, and low sperm count. They might increase obesity, allergies, and asthma symptoms.

Learn more: Microplastics in Drinking Water & How To Reduce Risk of Ingestion | Americans Exposed to 5,000 Times the Safe Level of BPA, Study Finds

What Can You Do About Plastic Water Bottle Pollution?

Although recycling disposable plastic water bottles alone won’t solve plastic pollution, we should still do it. But we must remember what can and cannot be recycled and consider the country’s limited plastic recycling capacity and other hurdles. So, we should try our best to reduce the need for recycling by reducing the amount of plastic we use.

Here are some simple and easy ways to achieve that:

Use a water filter. Don’t fall for the slick advertising that tells you bottled water is purer or safer than tap water. If you are concerned about the quality and taste of your drinking water at home, test the water or obtain a water quality report from your water provider. If necessary, invest in a water filtration system to remove all unwanted contaminants and impurities to ensure your tap water is not only clean, healthy, and safe but tastes and smells great.

Consider eco-friendly filtration options like reverse osmosis (RO) systems. RO filters offer high-quality, great-tasting drinking water comparable to, if not superior to, many bottled water brands. Making the switch will save money and help decrease the size of your plastic footprint over the long term.

Related: The Best Water Filtration Systems for Your Home

Carry a reusable water bottle. Switch to using reusable water bottles made from stainless steel, glass, or BPA-free plastic to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bottles drastically. Fill your reusable bottle at home with filtered water before heading out to avoid buying bottled water and generating more plastic waste while on the go. This will help to protect the environment and human health.

Advocate and educate. Raise awareness about plastic pollution and its impact. Encourage friends, family, and your community to use reusable bottles and share this article with them to help them better understand the dangers of microplastics.

Support refill stations. Look for businesses and public places that offer water refill stations. Ask your local representative if your county can install more water fountains so people in your community can hydrate or refill reusable bottles more easily. This will reduce the need for single-use plastic bottles and encourages a sustainable alternative.

Make sure to recycle. If you use plastic bottles, follow local recycling guidelines and use designated recycling bins to recycle. When you see an empty, used water bottle sitting on the street or in a park, please pick it up and drop it in an appropriate recycling bin.

Final Thoughts

Although many of the plastic bottles we use daily are recyclable, most end up in all the wrong places—like oceans, beaches, forests, you name it. It’s a real problem because plastic takes ages to decompose. When it does, it breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics.

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do to reduce the amount of plastic we use every day. An excellent place to start is using a water filter and carrying a reusable water bottle. We can also spread the word about plastic pollution and push for more water refill stations in urban areas. Sure, recycling is still important, but these simple measures can help us fight plastic pollution and its effects on marine life and human health.