Sunday, May 12, 2013

Everyday Plastics: Are the Lifecycles of Water Bottles and Other Plastics Endangering our Own?

By Katie Attinello

Just think: plastics have surrounded us for the last century, their presence so integrated into our everyday lives that we don’t even realize our level of exposure to their ingredients. While plastics have made life easier and more efficient in many ways, our overindulgence in disposable plastic containers, to-go cups, utensils, beauty products—the list goes on—has put us, and the environment, in a tough predicament.

a common culprit

Examining all the various plastics now woven into the material of our everyday lives would be nearly impossible. But a particular common product that has truly made its mark since the late 1980s—and not in solely positive ways—is the lightweight, portable, “disposable” water bottle. That unassuming, misleading little vessel has grown into a staggering eleven and a half billion dollar per year industry. The profit potential behind marketing bottled “spring water” as “pure,” and safer than regular tap water, is astronomical.

Companies are also capitalizing upon our societal tendency to buy things for their convenience. Water bottles are a simple, easily accessible, personalized product that we’re taught we can discard after use. But is there more going on before and after the short time we come in contact with our Dasani bottle that we should be concerned about?

what else are we drinking?

Plastics are made of many different components, depending upon the type of product it will become. It is now fairly common knowledge that chemicals from “food safe” plastics do have the potential to leach into the food or liquid they contain, which in turn pass through your body. Many plastics are manufactured with plasticizers called phthalates, a resin abbreviated to PET, and even now, some (like the blue water cooler in your office) still contain the chemical bisphenol A. Better known as BPA, bisphenol A mimics estrogen in the body. In many studies not conducted by the companies that rely on BPA to produce a profit, it has been linked to “major human health trends” like obesity, diabetes, attention deficit, liver disease, as well as breast and other cancers.

The FDA, which first deemed BPA safe in 2008 only to express health concerns about it in 2010, finally “banned” the chemical from infant bottles last year. But it wasn’t actually the FDA that initiated the change. A statement released by the FDA notes that they did not even receive reports on the safety (or dangers) of BPA because their actions to remove the substance from regulation were based upon the American Chemistry Council’s choice to phase out the ingredient from products. The ACC did this, The New York Times reported, in part to boost consumer confidence in plastics.

So if there was something to worry about in baby bottles, what about the adult bottle trend of portable water?

sacrifce zones

All bottled water is packaged in polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic. All PET contains paraxylene, which is a member of the benzene family. One of the largest oil refineries in the United States that produces this compound is located in Corpus Christi, Texas. In an interview for the 2009 documentary Tapped, residents of the town explain their extreme health problems, while others come forward to speak for the many who have died from cancers likely caused or severely agitated by contaminated air, groundwater, and soil. Even numerical data noted in the film suggests that something is off in Corpus Christi: the birth defects rate there is 84% above the state average.

An ex-EPA employee turned activist explains to filmmakers that many years ago, while still working for the agency, he was told he could be fired if he worked with citizens in the town to voice their concerns about the refinery’s pollution. In essence, if the townspeople weren’t already concerned, he wasn’t allowed to suggest that they should be. Today, he calls towns like Corpus Christi “sacrifice zones.” The implications here are that the major water bottle suppliers, Nestle, Coca Cola, and Pepsi, feel the residents affected by the manufacturing of their product are simply not as worthwhile as their bottom lines.

the plastic graveyard

But what is the real bottom line in this industry? There are mountains of research and consumer and scientist initiated red flags in the creation and consumption of portable drinking water, but our empty bottles are not where the cycle ends. As many environmental activists stress, there is no such thing as “away,” so when this commodity’s lifespan comes to the point of disposal, what happens next? Its impact surely doesn’t end at the recycling bin, or even the recycling facilities. In fact, only 20% of America’s plastic bottles end up being recycled each year. The rest are still living in one part of “away,” which actually happens to be a very big and very real place.

According to scientists and activists who troll the Pacific Ocean collecting samples every day, the tragic  findings show that ocean water, even at the furthest point from dry land in the world, has become a “soup” of miniscule plastic pieces. The original products have been crushed into tiny shards of material that fish and other marine animals mistake for food. They eat until they’re full, and eventually die. Many species of marine birds are also mistaking plastic bottle caps (which, surprise, are not recyclable because they’re made from a different plastic than the rest of the bottle), and bringing them back to feed their chicks. One of the most affected and studied species is the albatross. One research group found that 97.5% of chicks tested from the North Pacific Ocean had plastic in their bellies.

This heartbreaking fact seems to also be the ironic full circle mark: our obsession with convenience and penchant for trusting the corporations we buy from has lowered our health to that of animals. We blindly allow plastic chemicals to enter our lives and our stomachs from water bottles, food containers, utensils, fabrics, children’s toys, the interiors of our cars, nearly all we encounter in a day’s time—and haven’t demanded to know exactly what this means for our and the planet’s long-term health.

And while you may argue that many have raised their voices to combat the plastics industry and the beverage companies who sustain it, there simply cannot be change until the consumer refuses to purchase the item. If we continue to buy water bottles, they will continue to be made, and before long we’ll find ourselves like the albatross—filled to the brim with empty promises about the miracle of plastics.

Katie Attinello is a senior majoring in Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey. 


Tapped. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Co-directed and written by Jason Lindsey. Atlas Films. Documentary. 2009.
Plastic Planet. Directed and written by Werner Boote. First Run Features. Documentary. 2009.
Bag It. Directed by Suzan Beraza. Commentated by Jeb Berrier. Written by Michelle Curry Wright. Reelthing Films. Documentary. 2010.


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