The debate on disposable water bottles

Like so many other environmental issues, conflicting facts and opinions can be confusing when it comes to disposable water bottles. But ultimately, eliminating plastic water bottle use is one of the easiest and most positive things you can do as a sailor to protect the ocean.

There are many lifecycle analyses of the overall impact of disposable vs. reusable bottles – contact us if you’re interested in the specifics. Reusable bottles almost always come out ahead, provided they are actually reused, but in terms of overall energy use, the difference is often much smaller than people are led to believe.

That being said, the impact of disposable PET bottles on our oceans is undeniable. The average American consumed only 1.6 gallons of bottled water in 1976. By 2006, that number had jumped to 28.3 gallons. In the best case scenario, all the bottles we use while sailing return to shore and are properly recycled – though only a small portion of all single-use plastic water bottles used in the US (of which more than 75% never make it to recycling)- such action has a positive impact on local waters and marine ecosystems. But even then, bottles cannot be recycled forever. Eventually that plastic bottle will end up in a landfill or similar, leeching into the streams that feed the ocean.

In a more realistic scenario, and one that we see frequently while working with regattas around the world, bottles end up in trash cans, on docks, or blown into the water. This is not only unsightly, a point made earlier, but incredibly harmful to the marine environment. In the ocean, plastics break down quickly into tiny pieces, attracting toxic chemicals in the process. In recent studies, 100% of surface water samples taken from sites around the world contained plastic. These plastics are eaten by all forms of marine life, accumulating as they move up the food chain and into the fish we eat.

Water bottles among drift wood

Water bottles litter the beach in Acapulco, Mexico - Photo credit: Tanya Barcella, Marine Photobank

We believe strongly the use of reusable water bottles is a simple move easily adopted by all sailors that can greatly reduce the dangers caused by plastics introduced to the marine ecosystem. For more information on plastics, or on more general questions about sailing and sustainability, check out the Sailors for the Sea website at www.sailorsforthesea.org and feel free to contact us with any questions.

To learn more on how you can eliminate the use of disposable water bottles at your regatta, read our best practice on water bottle reduction.

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2 thoughts on “The debate on disposable water bottles

  1. Great post! What is often left out of discussions of plastic recycling is how incredibly little plastic is actually recycled into the same quality material. Except in rare cases, PET bottles are made of 100% virgin plastic. Of all of that #1 PET plastic — water bottle plastic — that we recycle, at best 1-2% returns to bottles. The rest is all downcycled or dumped — more than 50% of the US PET recycled last year was dumped on China to make junky products with lower-grade plastic.

    The dirty truth of plastic recycling is that, for every water bottle that is recycled two new bottles’ worth of plastic are made — one virgin-plastic bottle to restock the shelf, and then some downcycled product made from the extra-cheap recycled plastic (like the grossly overpackaged clear plastic packages on toys/games at big box stores — #1 plastic recycled by the US, bought by China).

    Repeat until the ocean is full.

    (The Natl Assoc of PET Container Resources has a great public report on this: http://www.napcor.com/pdf/2010_Report.pdf)

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