words Brett Stadelmann
Pollution caused by the manufacture, dispersal, and disposal of plastics is an issue which, directly or indirectly, affects every individual in the current age, and one which, even if every effort is made to correct it, will have an even greater effect on the next generation. Even worse, it affects not only populations and economies but also ecosystems the world over. Furthermore, there is no simple solution to this issue, as plastic is produced by many different industries for many different purposes. In consideration of these facts, what follows is the argument for a proposal that could address one small element of the problem: that the manufacture and sale of disposable plastic water bottles be prohibited.
The mass-production of plastic is fast becoming one of the greatest ecological disasters of our time. In 2014-15, in Australia, around 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste were generated, only about 14% of which was recycled or reused (Pickin and Randell 2016, p. 23). Considering that this is only one statistic from one first-world country, and that these numbers are increasing steadily, the true scope of the problem can easily seem insurmountable. Add to this plastic’s numerous problems: not all plastics can be recycled, those that can are only able to be recycled a limited number of times before being destined for landfill, plastic bottles can take hundreds of years to break down and, even then, they do not break down into material that is easily absorbed into the natural environment but rather into “microplastics”, barely-visible polymers that are hazardous, in ways which are only now becoming understood, to the majority of organisms that encounter or consume them. Then there is the energy investment required. The current cost of production of plastic bottles is immense and is only outweighed by the considerable transport costs when the bottles travel great distances from their place of manufacture and filling to the place of their consumption, which is often the case. All of this is so much more disappointing when it is considered that, in most cases for first-world countries, there is essentially nothing wrong with local drinking water. No health benefits whatsoever have been shown, with the rare exception of avoiding an outbreak of E. coli, from preferring bottled water to tap water, and yet the cost difference is truly astounding. In fact, Gleick and Cooley (2009, para. 12) conclude, “we estimate that producing bottled water requires between 5.6 and 10.2 MJ l–1—as much as 2000 times the energy cost of producing tap water.” This is energy which is surely better spent elsewhere. The true cost of plastic bottle production, then, in both economical and ecological terms, is nothing less than staggering.
Recycling can help to alleviate this cost, to be sure. It was recorded in 2010 that “94% of households recycled or reused plastic bottles,” (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010, para. 10) but there are several problems with this statistic. Firstly, it is uncertain that every household was honest in its reporting to the survey; secondly, there is no guarantee that every recycling household does so consistently; and, finally, the survey does not cover the fate of bottles once they leave the household. Different municipalities may be serviced by different recycling companies, all of which may have different procedures in place for dealing with bottles and will do so with greater or lesser effectiveness. It is this uncertainty, and the questionable degree to which recycling offsets the cost of production, that should rule out the capacity for recycling as a reasonable objection to the proposal.
One more important counter-argument is to be expected: the ability to maintain a store of potable water that is easily dispersed in the event of a crisis, conveniently airlifted in one simple package that is then separated, itemised, and finally delivered by hand in discrete, contained amounts that are perfectly sized to cater to individual persons. The benefits of this application cannot be overstated. Indeed, this may constitute a final and defining argument in favour of the continued existence of plastic water bottles, so much so that nothing more need be said on that side of the argument; but, if so, it may also be that the water bottle’s only true usefulness, and only reasonable purpose for continued existence, at least for now, is in this capacity. In this case, the water bottle ought to, in times of safety and abundance, vanish entirely from public sight, and be known only to the staff of installations who manage these emergency stores and see to that they are ready to send out at need. For everyone else, plastic bottles should be seen only during times of emergency, or in news coverage of disaster zones, and barely noticeable behind the tragedy that they are helping to lesson.
Plastic water bottles, in regions where tap
water or natural water sources are potable, serve no greater function than as a
convenience. As such, there is little or no benefit, to society, culture, the
economy, or to human health, in their continued use. On the other hand, the disadvantages
they bring are many and unmistakeable. There is the pollution to air and
waterways caused by their manufacture, and there is the persistence of their
composition, which endures for long after they begin to decompose. With all these
factors considered, the banning of disposable plastic water bottles is the most
reasonable, sustainable, and conscientious plan for the future.
Pickin, J & Randell, P 2016, Australian National Waste Report, Department of the Environment and Energy, viewed 08 Dec 2018 <https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/d075c9bc-45b3-4ac0-a8f2-6494c7d1fa0d/files/national-waste-report-2016.pdf>
Gleick, PH & Cooley, HS 2009, Energy implications of bottled water, IOPscience, viewed 05 Dec 2018 <http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014009/fulltext/>
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010, 4613.0 – Australia’s Environment: Issues and Trends, Jan 2010, Australian Bureau of Statistics, viewed 05 Dec 2018 <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4613.0Chapter40Jan+2010>
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