The single use plastic bottle culture

I dream I’m the guy who’ll cause a massive reduction in consumer purchase and use of single use plastic bottles (all because of this post, so please share).  I am a visual artist, and whether you’re a grade school student, high school student, college student, casual reader, ardent reader, working professional, budding or entrenched activist — no matter who you are, I’d like you to look at the following visual documentary.

Single use plastic bottles represent an unsustainable and ecologically unpardonable practice.  What are “single use plastic bottles?”  And why are they so hideous?

Single use plastic bottles originate from crude oil (petroleum).  It’s typical to envision crude oil coming from Middle Eastern kingdoms.  But crude oil is also drilled and spilled in Africa, in places such as the Nigerian delta region; it’s drilled and spilled from ocean floors; now there’s the archaic scramble to surface mine all the Canadian oil sands.  Anyway, single use plastic bottles (and all other plastics) come from oil.

After extraction of the crude oil, carbon burning trucks or direct pipelines transport the crude oil to shipping ports.  It’s a fact that now half of the world’s oil takes transoceanic journeys to reach oil hungry nations.  More carbon is burned so the ports can have electricity.  More carbon is burned to get the port workers to their jobs.  More carbon is burned as oil tankers make their two week trips across oceans. 

Once the oil tankers reach port, more carbon is burned to unload their oil and then transport the crude to the oil refineries.  Energy intensive processes such has high temperature heating refines the crude oil.  The crude is converted into hundreds of new petrochemical compositions (such as auto fuel).  Chemical additives are mixed with certain new compositions to make polymers, which are turned into dried pellets.

More carbon is burned to ship the polymer pellets (which originated from crude oil) to water bottling plants, or soda bottling plants, or juice bottling plants, which operate on carbon-based and nuclear energy resources.  The polymer pellets are turned into polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles.  Bottles are filled with consumable liquid.  And more carbon is burned to ship the filled bottles to retail stores.

The retail stores operate on carbon-based and nuclear energy resources.  Employees drive to work in carbon-burning vehicles.  Consumers mainly drive to retail stores in carbon-burning vehicle to purchase consumable liquids packaged in single use plastic bottles, either individually or by the case.  They then drive away in their carbon-burning vehicles.

And then, after 12-16 ounces of consumable liquid is poured into the body, the plastic bottle is mainly thrown in the trash, where it will ultimately be buried in a landfill, or it is despicably tossed away as ground litter, where it can eventually enter the watershed and add to the growing collection of oceanic plastic pollution.

This is a mindless cultural activity.  It wasn’t in place when I was a kid; it is a recent phenomena.

I do not participate in the single use plastic bottle culture.  I haven’t purchased or drank from a single use plastic bottle in two years.  You’ve just seen how much energy is burned and how much pollution is created so one can drink liquid from a single use plastic bottle.  It’s ridiculous.  Recycling single use plastic bottles only continues the energy intensive cycle.  The solution is to completely quit all participation in this practice.  Quitting is easier than you think.  Here’s how I did it…

My wife and I each own two stainless steel water bottles, and so does our five year old daughter.  They are washed after each use.  We maintain 10 one gallon plastic water jugs.  We keep them out of sunlight to avoid chemical leaching.  We determined that they stay bacteria free since there is no direct plastic-to-mouth contact.  We refill them at the grocery store water refill station approximately 8—10 times each before recycling them.  We have a water pitcher with a replaceable filter (we have a taste issue with our tap water, but I drink tap water elsewhere).  The pitcher fills our coffee maker and supplements our daily water consumption.  We do cook with tap water. 

We purchase Santa Cruz Organic Lemonade in 1 quart glass bottles, which we drink conservatively.  I drink no soda, ever.  If my wife and daughter do drink it, they purchase a six-pack of aluminum cans from the health food store and I recycle the cans with the cans I collect from my workplace.  Everyday I fill my steel bottle with water and bring it to work.  I drink water with the sandwich and snacks I pack in washable plastic containers; my lunch generates no trash.  I also bring a full water bottle to fairs, music festivals, on bike rides, hikes and city wanderings.

I wrote this because I am completely disheartened by single use plastic bottles.  I’m educated about the unsustainable lifestyles lived by Western peoples and the unsustainable practices of Western corporations — but I also did research when writing this, and as often happens, I learned something new.  Actually, I learned a lot.

I learned that my transition from single use plastic bottles to “multiple use plastics” is just a step for me, because I found a blog written by Beth Terry from Oakland, California, called My Plastic-free Life that further changed me.  Among other things, Beth critiques plastic consumption, inspires plastics reduction and reviews non-plastic food container alternatives.  I learned about LunchBots, a company that sells stainless steel lunch containers, and Life Without Plastic, a company that sells multiple stainless steel container options, including water bottles with stainless steel caps.  I cannot afford a sudden transition to these pricier steel products, but I will begin to request them as future Christmas and birthday gifts, and I’ll spend my recycling money on them until I’m fully transitioned.  I also learned about “a beacon in the smog” called Grist, which reports (in a refreshing, Onionesque way) on environmental and sustainability issues.

DATA COLLECTION (1):  On Monday, August 15, 2011, I rode my bike from my house in Bradley to my bank in neighboring Kankakee.  I am always aware of and saddened by public litter.  Taking only major routes through the towns, I made it a point to stop and photograph the single use plastic bottles I found discarded in the grass and against the curbs.  I stopped to take a total of 61 photos; 54 of them are shown in the array above.  That’s crude oil, extracted from foreign lands, shipped, refined, redefined, filled, reshipped, purchased, consumed, and then discarded on the ground.  Each of those single use plastic bottles is (potentially) fated to enter the watershed and the world’s oceans.  Start to look around your local roadways and green spaces and take notice of your environment.  Are the members of your community this unconscionable? 

DATA COLLECTION (2):  Later on Monday, August 15, 2011, I rode to what I considered a typical American park.  It has nearby parking, a football field, a concessions stand, beverage machines, and a children’s playground.  I looked into each trash can to check for single use plastic bottles.  Each trash can held multiple examples of single use plastic bottles, and my visual assessments determined that the majority of the trash was single use plastic bottles.  That’s crude oil, extracted from the earth in foreign lands, shipped, refined, redefined, filled, reshipped, purchased, consumed, discarded, and fated to be buried back in the earth, all so consumers could temporarily house some liquid content in their bodies.

Question this entire system.  Stop accepting it.       

And quit right now.  Don’t participate in the single use plastic bottle culture.  Don’t spend another penny on single use bottled water.  Don’t purchase soda or juice in single use plastic bottles.  Don’t accept a single use plastic bottle from your mom, neighbor or best friend.  At times learn to live without.  At other times problem-solve your way to more sustainable choices.  The luxury of the habit is yet more pavement on the road of our environmental ruin.  We can all do better.

3 thoughts on “The single use plastic bottle culture

  1. I can’t agree more with you, I especially like how you focus on the whole life cycle of plastic bottles. Sadly there’s so much waste going on, people need to be educated about these issues. I use a nalgene bottle for most of my drinking needs while on the go, it’s plastic but will last years. Brita filter and tap water work well, I like your idea to store water I might have to use that. Keep spreading the knowledge!

    1. Thanks for the comment! It’d be super-great for all of us if you ditched the single use plastic bottles for good!

      I also want to note that the great folks at “Life Without Plastic” liked this post enough to send an email of praise and the request to link it to their own site.

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