After a long day of working outside or maybe just a walk in the park you may swing by a store and buy a plastic water bottle. After drinking it you drop it in a recycling bin, pat yourself on the back and continue on with your life. But what happens to the plastic you just used? Fortunately the bottle is #1 plastic, so it is recycled, but the cap is # 5, which is not recyclable in the US. Out of the 7 kinds of plastic we produce, only #1 and 2 are recycled in this country. This isn’t because the technology for this doesn’t exist, but because the technology used in the US is outdated, mostly build in the 1990’s, and not updated or well cared for since.
Your bottle and cap go to the recycling company, where they get separated. The bottle is most likely crushed into a bale and shipped to China. If not, then it’s shredded and reused at one of the handful of American repurposing plants that make clothes or new packaging out of the plastic fibers. The cap is often sent to landfill, where it is mixed into the sand used to cover the landfill. Laying on top of the landfill with the sand, your cap is now exposed to birds and the elements, and can even make it’s way back into our waterways. So even though you didn’t put that bottle cap in the ocean, it still ended up there.
How can we fix this problem? You can go the way of California Assemblyman Stone, whose bill AB-319 would make it so caps had to be leashed to the bottles. This would make it harder for the caps to be removed from the bottles accidentally, and make it difficult for recycling companies to get rid of the caps. However the caps will still end up as landfill if the type of plastic remains the same, and recycling companies still remain incapable of dealing with this kind of plastic.
The harder, but more impactful solution is to just not use plastic water bottles. Over half of all bottled water is just tap water, and 22% of bottled water brands failed the state health and safety standards for water quality of the state they were being sold in. In spite of this, bottled water quality is overseen by the FDA and rarely checked, so the bottled water companies have little incentive to improve the quality. Choosing a reusable bottle is more common than ever, and in most places, a reusable bottle filled with tap water is a cheaper, safer, and incredibly more environmentally friendly than the single use plastic alternative.
People often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues facing us, and they feel that just them changing their lifestyle won’t be enough. And in some ways they are right, many environmental issues cannot be solved by an individual action. However, in more important ways they are wrong. When I was little I used to love an essay by Loren Eiseley, called The Star Thrower. Although the version I was read was truncated and simplified for kids, it held the same message. And in its simplest form the essay is says this: if you can spend effort to save a single life, isn’t it worth it?
And in that vein whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues we are facing I think to myself: how many bottle caps does it take to kill a fledgling albatross? How many plastic bags does it take to kill a turtle? You’ll find the answer to these questions is a number that you can reduce from your own life every year, and if it saves a few turtles, a few albatross, a few of hundreds of species across the world, then surely it’s worth the effort, and not at all futile.