There’s no doubt that being able to buy a bottle of water is pretty handy. Those smaller-sized ones are particularly convenient to stow away in a bag for long journeys, quick wipe ups, or hand over to the kids.
And generally speaking (there are exceptions that we’ll return to), drinking bottled water isn’t directly dangerous to your health. But indirectly? When you consider the cost to the earth and how that impacts on our lives, and the legacy that we’re blithely handing to our children; you start to understand why drinking bottled water is really very dangerous.
What’s in The Bottle?
To begin, what is bottled water? Sometimes it’s carbonated and mineral-rich. Sometimes it’s just regular filtered water. In many cases, the water is drawn from municipal supplies. The problem is really about what that water comes packaged in.
Plastic bottles are among the planet’s worst enemies, simply because of the sheer number of them. Our plastic footprint rivals our carbon one for the immense harm it wreaks on the planet. And the numbers are astonishing. It’s estimated that Americans use around 50 billion plastic water bottles each year.
The Reality of Recycling
But we recycle, right? So that must help.
Well, yes. But the rate of recycling just can’t match those figures. The national recycling rate is around 23 per cent. Those figures mean at that rate of consumption, around 38 billion water bottles go into landfill every single year. That can’t go it, can it?
And what does ‘going into landfill’ actually mean? Its one of those phrases that is often repeated, but maybe it’s worth lingering for a moment on what actually happens to those billions of plastic bottles once they’re unceremoniously dumped.
Plastic in landfill sites takes up to 1000 years to decompose. As it decomposes, it can leak pollutants in the soil, and into our water supply.
Aside from landfill, plastic bottles are helping to destroy the natural environment elsewhere. Over two decades, scientists at the remarkable Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and the Sea Education Association (SEA) have analyzed plastic debris from the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and concluded that there are literally millions of tons of plastic floating on our seas
Plastic bottles can fill with water and sink to the ocean floor. Marine life is known to try to feed on discarded plastic, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum issued a recent report which claims that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than there are fish.
It’s not easy to recycle plastic as there are different types, with different chemical compositions, sometimes requiring different recycling treatments. In order for recycling to happen, the different types of plastic must be separated, which on the kind of scale we’re looking at as a nation, is incredibly challenging.
What is a ‘Plastic Bottle’?
In fact, when we start to consider the different types of plastic, it leads to another concern when it comes to drinking bottled water. What exactly are plastic water bottles made from?
Most bottles are made out of polyethylene terephthalate. This isn’t an inherently dangerous composite material; except when the bottles are stored in warm or hot temperatures (and let’s face it, when do we usually buy bottled water?), scientists believe that the chemicals from the plastic can leach into the water itself.
The levels are considered to be below that which is likely to cause harm, but the situation continues to be monitored by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Plastic isn’t Fantastic
Another chemical that the FDA is monitoring for its impact on human health is Bisphenol A (BPA), present in the manufacture of some water bottles. For now, the FDA are not issuing any warnings, although it did go as far as making the following recommendations, ‘for consumers who want to limit their exposure to BPA,
- Plastic containers have recycle codes on the bottom. Some, but not all, plastics that are marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA.
- Do not put very hot or boiling liquid that you intend to consume in plastic containers made with BPA. BPA levels rise in food when containers/products made with the chemical are heated and come in contact with the food.
- Discard all bottles with scratches, as these may harbor bacteria and, if BPA-containing, lead to greater release of BPA.
With the environmental time-bomb that plastic bottles heavily contributes to, and the potential health issues that are raised by drinking water contained in disposable plastic bottles, it’s hard to give a green light to bottled water as a ‘safe’ option.
And finally, even if you can shrug off concerns about the future of the planet, and the risk of chemicals leaking into your water from the bottle, a German peer-reviewed study published in 2013, revealed that in 18 brands of water, an astonishing 24,520 suspect chemicals were found