- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The public’s growing habit of drinking water for health reasons is impressive. Figures purporting to show the fate of the ubiquitous plastic bottles holding that water are not.

Recycling is the word of our time, but the follow-through with these plastic bottles is a different matter. Too few find their way into recycling, according to figures compiled by organizations dedicated to raising public awareness about the problem.

Eight out of 10 plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or end up in a landfill, according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a Washington-based nonprofit. More than 50 billion beverage cans and bottles have been landfilled, littered and incinerated in the country so far this year, the organization says on its Web site.

Groups such as CRI are behind moves in various states to legislate deposit fees, called bottle bills, on beverages sold in recyclable bottles. The idea behind such bills is to make it easier to capture beverage bottles and cans for recycling because the money provides an incentive for users to return them to the source, usually a retail store.

Other groups, such as the originators of a Refill Not Landfill campaign aimed at reducing disposable water-bottle waste, are the manufacturers of more solid, reusable beverage containers.

The waste problem is increasingly a hazard not only in this country, but worldwide, these groups say.

Advocacy groups say people who claim the superiority of bottled water over free, old-fashioned tap water need to rethink their priorities on environmental grounds alone. Private and taxpayer-supported public recycling programs are not as numerous as the count of bottles of water for sale, leaving unanswered the question of where all those plastic empties end up. Not everyone bothers to recycle every bottle he or she buys. Rules about what can be recycled often are not clear or not spelled out in appropriate settings.

The matter is further complicated by assertions that certain plastics sold as water carriers — even plastics used in more resilient, longer-lasting containers — may cause harm. Some scientists have warned that these plastics can leak toxins into the water, and they, therefore, urge the public to be more savvy about the kind of containers they choose for carrying water and other liquids.

Overall, it’s agreed that plastic bottles are far less of an environmental menace than plastic bags, at least from the point of view of litter. The most popular commercial brands of water are bottled in containers made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and are recyclable, as are the ubiquitous bags, according to Robert Krebs, director of communications for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council. He maintains that bags and food-service containers aren’t collected by many municipal authorities because they may contain food residue that attracts rats.

Even if every bottle were recycled, the very existence of plastic bottles raises another issue. Namely, the amount of oil needed to make those bottles equals about 1.5 million barrels a year, or enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year, according to the Earth Policy Institute, another Washington-based nonprofit. (Mr. Krebs argues that such a statistic is misleading on grounds that 70 percent of plastics come from natural gas, not from oil.)

Grocery stores and bottlers in the business of selling bottled water object to much of the bottle bill legislation, notes Betty McLaughlin, CRI’s executive director. On a more positive slant, she finds the public more attuned to recycling and ready to discourage littering by sometimes asking even strangers to pick up after themselves.

When it comes to substitutes for plastic bottles, Ms. McLaughlin favors glass, which, of course, isn’t nearly as convenient or portable — two reasons why sales of water in plastic bottles have surged.

Other choices include stainless steel and aluminum bottles, against which scientists have no objections, says Pete Myers, a co-author of “Our Stolen Future” and founder of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences in Charlottesville. When necessary, he reuses a PET plastic water bottle several times without worrying about the bacteria count on an unsterilized bottle.

His main worry about the battle of the bottles, he says, is the composition of a polycarbonate plastic, “the one found in some of the popular rigid sports bottles.” Chemists, he says, have reported that its molecular makeup allows for a dioxin to leach into any liquid it holds. He uses a stainless steel canister from Klean Kanteen as well as a Nalgene product made from polypropylene.

The bulk of Klean Kanteen customers “are those with concern about the environment,” reports Jeff Cresswell, operations manager of the Chico, Calif., firm.

“Business is growing exponentially,” he says.

The company claims to be the first to push the idea of stainless steel, which he calls “a proven product that is tested to be inert, toxin free and easy to clean.” Plus, he adds, “it is 100 percent recyclable if you ever need to do that. But if you buy one of our bottles, you probably lose it before you have to recycle.”

Founded three years ago, the company began in response to research indicating that certain plastics could leach harmful chemicals and cause a potential health hazard. It also saw its mission as helping curb the ever-growing demand and consumption of bottled water, the statistics for which, he says, “are ridiculous.”

Stainless steel and aluminum containers are found far more commonly in Europe, says Eric Hansen, senior marketing manager for Nalgene Outdoor Products of Rochester, N.Y., which originated the Refill Not Landfill campaign.

“Over here, we resist the cold metal as something we are not used to,” he says.

The company, which is part of Thermo Fisher Scientific, originally intended the campaign to correspond with National Drinking Water Week earlier this month. The plan was to invite people to take an online pledge not to drink bottled water for a period of time and help save on waste. Proceeds from the sale of a commemorative Nalgene bottle went to a nonprofit called Native Energy, which helps build American Indian, farmer-owned community-based renewable energy projects.

Promotion materials state that “on average, one person uses 166 disposable plastic water bottles a year,” a figure derived, Mr. Hansen says, from Beverage Marketing Corp. statistics.

“The tricky part for all of us is to combat this throwaway mentality and not care what happens. Once you change behavior, it is no big deal,” he asserts.

He counters Mr. Myers’ assertion about the potential dangers of a chemical compound called bisphenol found in the company’s best-selling outdoor bottles.

“It has been used for five decades, and studies show no negative effects,” Mr. Hansen says.

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