In every product we buy, there is a hidden natural resource cost. The loss of precious natural resources in production and recycling creates an unseen environmental impact that will come back to haunt us in the future. We explore elements of one of the most damaging – water.
There is no better example of hidden loss of natural resources than the humble plastic drinks bottle, a ‘miracle’ invention of the twentieth century, and now a threat to the health of the planet. When American engineer, Nathaniel Wyeth, patented polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles that could withstand the pressure of carbonated liquids in 1973, he unwittingly created a monster. It seemed a brilliant, game-changing invention at the time – plastic bottles were a much cheaper alternative to glass bottles, lighter and cheaper too in terms of fuel to transport, and supposedly easily disposable. Nathaniel Wyeth surely could not have envisaged the environmental disaster his patent would unleash.
Within a few decades of his patent, the disposable plastic drinks bottle became an environmental nightmare. Look around you and there they are, plastic water bottles. Every meeting, every event, every restaurant, our homes, our cars, cluttering up the roadside and waterways, the plastic water bottle is everywhere. Plastic bottles are not the only villain in the plastics pollution scenario, but they are one of the most visible and the ‘poster child’ of environmental organisations globally. This is with good reason.
Think about this. vv Over 500 billion plastic drinks bottles are made every year. That’s almost 1.5 billion per day. That’s a lot of water lost along the way for a product that will end up polluting the landfill and waterways for centuries to come.
Plastic is certainly not new nor limited to packaging in the food and beverage industries. The first fully synthetic plastic was patented in 1907. Since then, non-disposable plastics of various types have become important components in manufacturing across many industries including aviation, motor vehicles, medical, textiles and electronics, providing greater molding ability, strength, lightness, and durability.
The single-use plastic drinks bottle is by no means the only environmental villain but it is one of the most visible in our daily lives. There are boundless resources for the inquisitive to discover more about the environmental footprint of every product. The numbers are startling but they help us understand what scientists are trying to tell us about climate change and the hidden natural resources we are losing along the way. Sectors including agriculture, textiles, manufacturing, technology, energy, and industrial machinery, all have a huge water footprint. While various scientific and industrial organizations use different methodologies to calculate a water footprint – the hidden volume of water in the entire production process and value chain of products, the consumers purchase and use – the problem is glaring. It can be measured for any product, production process, a corporation, or a particular country or region. The water footprint includes usage of surface and groundwater, rainwater, and greywater (wastewater) which can include a mix of fresh and recycled wastewater.
The same footprint theory can be applied to calculating all other ‘hidden’ natural resources used in production including oil, coal, natural gas, metals, stone, sand, and soil. For example, the manufacturing process of the plastic bottle also takes up to a quarter of a litre of oil to produce a single one-litre water bottle, not including transport, marketing, and disposal. Again, a substantial loss of a natural resource used for a throwaway item, adding to the overall carbon footprint (one 500 millilitre plastic bottle of water has a total carbon footprint equal to 82.8 grams of carbon dioxide), and to environmental damage.
In countries like the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and European countries, the consumer can end up paying a higher price for the bottled version of what is the same water as from their household taps. Smart, emotional marketing by beverage companies has lured people into believing that bottled was somehow better than the clean, drinkable water that comes out of their taps. Mostly, it’s not. It’s often the same water reprocessed, but with a trendy name and packaging design conjuring up images of glaciers and mountain springs, ocean breezes, health benefits, and a glamorous lifestyle. For this, the consumer can pay many times the price of simple clean tap water. The taste between brands may vary slightly, but that may also depend on the individual palate. It’s hard to believe but in upmarket restaurants overseas, diners can order bottles of water that cost over $100, but there are cheaper options which are still expensive compared with buying from the shop. This is foolish extravagance and makes no sense whatsoever. Checking the label for full product disclosure will usually reveal the origin of the water and, with some brand exceptions which are genuinely natural spring water, mostly it has been reprocessed from the local water supply. On a positive note, there are many in the developed countries who have realized the error of their ways and that it’s time to save money and the environment by abandoning the use of plastic water bottle and drink tap water instead.
However, for most populations of the developing world, there is little choice. The single-use plastic water bottle is mostly still the main source of clean and safe drinking water. Unclean water and poor sanitation combine to create a serious public health hazard for more than 2 billion people, leading to transmission of diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, and diarrhea. In Pakistan, the tap water is often toxic and undrinkable so 25 litre refillable treated water dispenser bottles are a feature on many homes and offices.
But mostly, we don’t keep smaller refillable bottles which can be topped up so most people end up buying small water bottles from the shop. These will end up en masse in the rubbish heaps, nullahs, rivers and oceans. Consumer behavioural change can at least help reduce the number of plastic bottles by simply buying a refillable water bottle to take with us when we move around. But it takes much more than that. Governments across the world have a responsibility to all communities to work towards clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, and better sanitation.
In Pakistan, like many countries, the top selling and safest bottled water comes mostly from brands owned by the giant food and beverage companies like Coca Cola (owns Dasani), Nestle, and Pepsico (owns Aquafina). Mostly, this is not pure spring water. This water is taken from the local water supply and then rigorously purified and treated through processes to remove the toxic substances. If access to clean and safe tap water in every household across the country were possible, their market would likely be reduced and perhaps, there would be less plastic bottles polluting the environment. As long as the need for bottled water remains due to the lack of clean tap water, so does the additional issue of using natural resources just to make the plastic bottles. However, it is also worth mentioning that bottled water has not always proven to be free of toxins either through poor manufacturing processes by unethical companies, or a failure in the product testing before dispatch to the consumers. This has led to prosecutions by authorities and communities in some countries after bottled water was found to have caused health issues.
In 2016, bottled water overtook soft drinks as the most popular beverage. While this change may have benefited the health of populations by reducing sugar intake, diabetes, and other diseases, it didn’t solve the plastics problem. Consumers remained hooked on plastic bottles and the usage increased. But the reality in the developing world is that people just need access to clean drinking water, bottled or otherwise. This has to change but the question is ‘how?’ The obvious answer remains global access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking local water supplies, but that is still a long way off in many countries. While recycling of plastic bottles seems a wise plan, it is worth remembering that estimates indicate that only around 9 percent of plastic bottles are recycled globally. The rest will be an environmental nightmare for centuries.
Manufacturers and food producers are now facing global pressure to consider climate change and environmental issues in every step of their processes. But the investment costs of process change are substantial and there are also jobs at stake, so change will not come quickly or easily. While some of the world’s largest corporations are promising change, it’s important to read the small print on the timeline.
It takes approximately three litres of water to produce a one litre plastic water bottle. Over 500 billion plastic drinks bottles are made every year. That’s almost 1.5 billion per day. That’s a lot of water lost along the way for a product that will end up polluting the landfill and waterways for centuries to come.
Consumer behavioural change can at least help reduce the number of plastic bottles by simply buying a refillable water bottle to take with us when we move around. But it takes much more than that. Governments across the world have a responsibility to all communities to work towards clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, and better sanitation.
However, there is some progress. Some large global soft drink and bottled water companies in the world have committed to switching to more sustainable processing including, introducing a percentage of recycled plastic into their production and in the future, full inclusion. While this may be a while down the track, it’s a step in the right direction. Some are also supporting governments and environmental alliances and organisations to develop initiatives to better manage and replenish groundwater, and to support recycling. These are important commitments and should set good examples if they are fulfilled and are not based on ‘greenwashing’ their environmental credentials. Big industry has the investment power and access to technology to lead the way and help governments and communities solve water problems, particularly in manufacturing processes.
Recently, there has been an interesting global development which might encourage change in reducing plastic pollution sooner than expected. At the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March 2022, Heads of State, Environment Ministers, and other representatives from 175 countries endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution and negotiate an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution calls for all stakeholders to “work towards sustainable production and consumption of plastics, including, among others, product design, and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches”.
If the agreement to end plastic pollution through a legally binding agreement is endorsed in 2024, it will be a significant step towards changing the way all single-use plastics are produced and disposed of. This will be beneficial in reducing the loss of natural resources used not only in plastic bottles, but all types of plastic packaging. It would be a huge win for the environment overall. But it is still far from certain and there are many vested interests at stake in such a monumental move towards restrictions. While some global corporations are supportive, at least publicly, others are pushing back through lobbying governments via their industry representative groups.
Unfettered use and wastage of water exacerbates water stress and is a serious issue for any country, including Pakistan. Pakistan is already considered to be one of the most water stressed countries in the world according to reports by the International Monetary Fund, United Nations Development Programme, and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources. The reports raise the alarming possibility that the country could reach absolute water scarcity by 2025 or not far beyond at the current rate of depletion, lack of storage infrastructure, drought, poor irrigation and production practices, and a lack of enforcement of environmental controls. Water is vital to human existence and to run out of it is unimaginable. At that point, water insecurity can become a national security issue if it leads to conflict over resources, and mass migration. Climate-smart solutions and recycling innovations in all industries and agricultural sectors are imperative to make a significant reduction in the loss of natural resources and reverse environmental degradation.
But we have to move far beyond just lip service, reports, conferences in luxury 5-star hotels, and agreements that may never be fully implemented in our lifetime. Communities need to step up and act. Some towns and cities around the world have shown impressive initiative by implementing bans on plastic water bottles. Bundanoon, a small, picturesque Australian town in the highlands south of Sydney, was the first to do this in 2009. Angered by a proposal from a big water bottling company to set up a plant in their small town to take millions of litres of water from the precious local aquifers, the well-informed community came together to say a firm ‘no’. Residents saw no value in letting a water company take their water, bottle it in plastic and transport and sell it around the country, even back to their town, and contribute to environmental problems. Bundanoon, like all Australian cities has pleasant-tasting, clean municipal tap water. They rejected the bottling company’s proposal and encouraged local shopkeepers not to sell bottled water. Instead, they set up free water refilling stations and drinking fountains around the town and promoted the ‘green’ tourism potential of this initiative. This enhanced the economic benefits across the entire community.
Manufacturers and food producers are now facing global pressure to consider climate change and environmental issues in every step of their processes. But the investment costs of process change are substantial and there are also jobs at stake, so change will not come quickly or easily.
Bundanoon, like all Australian cities has pleasant-tasting, clean municipal tap water. They rejected the bottling company’s proposal and encouraged local shopkeepers not to sell bottled water. Instead, they set up free water refilling stations and drinking fountains around the town and promoted the ‘green’ tourism potential of this initiative.
International media picked up the story and Bundanoon residents quickly found themselves famous as pioneers of how communities can take a stand to reject the plastic water bottle. The bottled water industry wasn’t happy, but it did signal a change in consumer behaviour which could affect their profits and therefore, it could not be ignored. Today, cities and towns in a number of countries are introducing similar full or partial bans, including total bans on plastic bottled water in government buildings. It is likely that such actions will grow globally as governments and communities grapple with the reality of climate change and plastic pollution. The small Bundanoon community showed us that it is possible to join together to make a difference.
Banning plastic water bottles is unlikely to happen in Pakistan any time soon and as long as communities don’t have access to safe drinkable water from their taps, the dependence on bottled water will remain high. But it’s time to resist the single-use plastic water bottle where possible. There is a myriad of research information available online to educate ourselves and our children on the impact of plastic bottles, loss of water and other natural resources, along with case studies to educate ourselves on how we can contribute to change. However, while brilliant research may be at our fingertips, it is often devoid of plain language to communicate simple, clear messaging on issues and solutions. Many reports, brochures and websites on these important climate and environment topics are written in ‘development-speak’, laden with acronyms, jargon, and technical terminology, and often only available in English. They are really meant for development professionals and donors. It would be helpful if international organisations, including the United Nations, could work towards ‘plain’ language rather than jargon on important topics.
As we’ve seen from the Bundanoon example, individuals, organisations, and communities can contribute individually or collectively to do something worthwhile towards reducing or banning single-use plastic water bottles. We can’t expect greater change if we don’t try to do something ourselves. Let’s look at those simple steps again. We can start by understanding the hidden water footprint and environmental impact of those bottles. Using more filtered water dispensers in the work and public spaces and promoting greater use of refillable water bottles could make a difference. Cut out all those individual water bottles in every meeting and event (it is astounding to see photographs of organisations responsible for addressing plastics pollution holding meetings with large numbers of disposable plastic water bottles on the tables) – there are more sustainable solutions to this. Commit to responsible household recycling. Encourage governments to ensure enforceable policies and legislation on plastics production and disposal, and management of natural resources. Some governments have already developed policies for banning plastic bags, but it must go beyond that to include bottles, and all types of disposable plastic packaging.
Cleaning up plastic pollution in the waterways like the Indus River system and our oceans is critical, but wouldn’t it be better if we prevented the problem in the first place? Through knowledge-sharing and a dedicated approach working together across all levels of society, we can reduce our water footprint and preserve our natural resources, and move towards a cleaner, healthier environment.
The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
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