Environment

Should plastic water bottles be banned?

Within the conversation on how to combat climate change, a debate has formed on whether eliminating plastic bottles would actually help the cause or instead have other negative consequences

Rise of the Issue

As more information is uncovered on the environmental impacts of plastics on the environment and water sources, single-use plastics such as plastic water bottles and utensils have been criticized by environmental groups around the world. While plastic water bottles currently see little-to-no federal regulations, several municipal governments have taken action towards banning these bottles, and several legislative proposals have been submitted to Congress. 

The issue has gained traction in recent years along with the conversation of environmental policy and protection, with several prominent organizations on both sides of the issue defending their positions. Some of these organizations, such as the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) have taken an unconventional approach to the issue, focussing largely on consumer choice and the impacts on consumers when they don’t have access to bottled water. On the other hand, proponents of a ban on plastic water bottles have focussed more on examining the impact that these bottles have on the environment and local water sources.

Issue Timeline

1973

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Bottles Patented

DuPont Engineer Nathaniel Wyeth patents PET plastic bottles, and makes water sold in plastic bottles more common and accessible to the average consumer.

2007

San Francisco Ends Spending on Bottled Water

The ban prevents municipal bodies and public events of certain types from purchasing bottled water, and includes fines for event sponsors who are caught distributing bottled water at public events with more than 100 people.

2013

Massachusetts Town Bans Single-Use Bottled Water

The ban, introduced in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, prohibits the sale of certain types of bottled water, particularly bottles with less than 1 liter in volume and bottles made out of PET plastic, and includes non-criminal fines for violators.

2015

Study Shows Unintended Consequences of Bottle Ban

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows that a significant amount of consumers switch to consuming sugary drinks and beverages when there is no option to purchase bottled water.

Micro Issues

A.

Environmental Impact

Supporters and opponents of plastic water bottles disagree on the overall environmental impact of single-use plastic bottles. Supporters say that the majority of plastic water bottles in the U.S. are made out of recyclable PET plastics, while opponents say that while the plastic itself is recyclable, only a small percentage of bottles actually get recycled.

B.

Consumer Choice

Supporters and opponents don’t agree on whether the consumer voice should play a role in the decision to ban plastic water bottles. While supporters say that a majority of consumers enjoy the convenience of being able to purchase water wherever they go, opponents say that convenience should not override the need to protect the environment.

C.

Water Vs Sugary Drinks

The two sides have differing views on the inadvertent consequences of not providing water as an option for consumers. Supporters say that the lack of water as a choice will lead consumers to consume more sugary and unhealthy beverages, while opponents say that this consequence is overstated and can be mitigated with proper nutritional education.

D.

Water Sources

The two sides disagree on the degree of impact that bottled water has on freshwater sources. Opponents say that bottled water companies have a negative impact on limited fresh water sources and populations around those sources, while supporters say that other industries have a much more negative impact on water sources.

Pro Arguments

1.

A significant percentage of plastic water bottles end up in landfills and waterways.

Up to 70% of plastic water bottles are not recycled, meaning that they end up polluting the environment or sitting in landfills. The PET plastic used in plastic water bottles takes up to 450 years to decompose naturally, meaning that if they are not recycled, they will stay in landfills and waterways for a long time.

2.

Switching to tap or fountain water can save a significant amount of money.

Americans spent $31 billion on bottled water in 2018, whereas the cost to fix and maintain U.S. public water supplies over the next 20 years is $24 billion. Banning plastic water bottles would allow savings for both American consumers as well as the government.

3.

Banning plastic water bottles would reduce the impact on local water sources.

Water mining has a negative impact both directly on water sources where the water is being extracted, as well as the populations living close to or downstream from those water sources. Banning plastic water bottles would mitigate these impacts and reduce the chances of local droughts.

4.

Banning plastic water bottles can improve overall health.

A significant amount of bottled water contains microplastics and other plastic particles, which negatively affect overall health. Banning plastic water bottles would prevent the consumption of these plastics.

5.

Plastic water bottles require fossil fuels to make.

The PET plastic used in plastic water bottles is made from materials derived from crude oil and natural gas, both of which are fossil fuels. Banning plastic water bottles would reduce the consumption of these fossil fuels.

Con Arguments

1.

Banning plastic water bottles can lead to increased consumption of sugary drinks.

Studies have shown that removing bottled water as an option for consumers can have the unintended effect of increasing consumption of sugary drinks and other unhealthy beverages. Banning water bottles would have a detrimental effect on overall health, as a healthy option would be removed.

2.

Plastic water bottles can act as an emergency water supply.

In areas that lack public water infrastructure, or in areas affected by natural disasters that have impacted water supplies, plastic water bottles can act as an emergency water supply that does not require any power or additional resources. Banning plastic water bottles would remove an option for these areas, potentially leading to water shortages.

3.

Banning plastic water bottles would prevent consumers from consuming a product they want.

A survey by the International Bottled Water Association shows that 93% of Americans say that bottled water should be available wherever drinks are sold. Banning plastic water bottles would remove this choice that a significant percentage of consumers prefer to have.

4.

Plastic water bottles are less harmful than other plastic containers.

Plastic water bottles contain less PET plastic than bottles for carbonated beverages, since those bottles need to be thicker to withstand the sugars and carbonation of those drinks. Banning plastic water bottles would not have as much of an impact as intended, since other drinks use far more plastic than water bottles.

5.

Plastic water bottle alternatives can have a worse impact on the environment.

Single-use water bottles made out of alternative materials such as glass or aluminum have a worse impact on the environment since they are made out of heavier materials, and as such require more fossil fuels to produce and transport.