Posted by: David McKay | June 1, 2010

Overwhelmed by Plastic?

I recently wrote a letter to John A. “Skip” Laitner, Director of Economic and Social Analysis at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) asking him if he could tell me how many millions of barrels of oil are used to produce plastic grocery bags and plastic water bottles.  He very kindly wrote back.  He could not say about the bags, but he sent me information from the Pacific Institute about plastic water bottles.

The Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity.  They know a little bit about water and it’s enormous importance around the planet:

The Pacific Institute estimates that in 2006:

  • Producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation
  • Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide
  • It took 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water

Total U.S. Consumption of Bottled Water in 2006

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, Americans bought a total of 31.2 billion liters of water in 2006, sold in bottles ranging from the 8-ounce aquapods popular in school lunches to the multi-gallon bottles found in family refrigerators and office water coolers. Most of this water was sold in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, requiring nearly 900,000 tons of the plastic. PET is produced from fossil fuels – typically natural gas and petroleum.

Energy Required to Make PET Plastic

According to the plastics manufacturing industry, it takes around 3.4 megajoules of energy to make a typical one-liter plastic bottle, cap, and packaging. Making enough plastic to bottle 31.2 billion liters of water required more than 106 billion megajoules of energy. Because a barrel of oil contains around 6 thousand megajoules, the Pacific Institute estimates that the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil were needed to produce these plastic bottles.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Consumption of Bottled Water

The manufacture of every ton of PET produces around 3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Bottling water thus created more than 2.5 million tons of CO2 in 2006.

Water Required to Make Bottled Water

In addition to the water sold in plastic bottles, the Pacific Institute estimates that twice as much water is used in the production process. Thus, every liter sold represents three liters of water.

Transporting and Recycling Bottled Water

More energy is needed to fill the bottles with water at the factory, move it by truck, train, ship, or air freight to the user, cool it in grocery stores or home refrigerators, and recover, recycle, or throw away the empty bottles. The Pacific Institute estimates that the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil.

Sources: Beverage Marketing Corporation estimate for 2006.  Plastics Europe. http://lca.plasticseurope.org/petb5.htm  I. Bousted. 2005. Eco-profiles of the European Plastics Industry: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), (Bottle grade).

If you got this far, I am impressed.  The information I discover can be daunting, and discouraging.  Lucky I am such an optimistic person, huh?

The world is a mess.  No, that’s not quite accurate — the world is just fine, it’s the humans on it that are a mess.  And only some of them — the greedy bastards that “need to have the most toys before they die,” as a guy I knew in high school was fond of saying.

As the definition of my blog states, I am trying to live responsibly in the Age of Plastic.  How do I stay optimistic?  How do you?

I do not turn my back to the problem — I address it.  Most things in life are not easy.  Nobody ever told me they were.  There are repercussions to the throw-away culture we live in.  They are massing like thunderclouds on the horizon, a horizon that is not as far off as we thought, a Deepwater Horizon that is now beneath the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico, in the garbage patches that are our oceans.  We need to wake up!

California is poised to ban the plastic bag.  Read about it here.  There is a silver lining.  I wish them luck.  One step at a time, people!

Thanks to Skip Laitner and the ACEEE for providing information to further my understanding.  I do not believe it is necessary to know the exact amount of millions of barrels of oil that are being used to manufacture plastic grocery bags and plastic water bottles — we all know it’s millions of. . .

No, I believe it is necessary to question your own potential.  I believe it is necessary to question everything!  Do not be discouraged, do not be overwhelmed.  One step at a time.  Don’t be complacent — don’t ever be complacent.

Responsibility is not convenient — it’s necessary.

Rethink.  Refuse.  Reduce.  Reuse.

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Responses

  1. Dollar stores, K-Mart, Wall-Mart, Family Dollar, Big Lots, Buy-A-Lot, Waste-A-Lot…
    Do we really need all of the things we buy? Especially considering most items purchased are usually made out of plastic way across vast oceans by poverty stricken children and adults.

    Question everything – yes – ask yourself “Do I really need this?”
    Definition of Need
    Need – to lack something that is necessary or essential.

    Thanks for reminding us to pay attention David.

  2. Very interesting, David!

    I stay optimistic by spreading the “use less” message to the next generation and doing my best to educate everyone I can about the things I’ve learned about the environment and what we can do to protect it.

    It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes. Especially when you see big companies doing irresponsible and very destructive things and making huge messes that feel like they completely wipe out the small steps that you are making. But I believe the small steps will prevail and education is a big part of waking people up. If we all ditched the plastic bottles and bags, 2 simple steps, it would make a huge impact!

    Keep the faith and keep letting us know what you’re up to! 🙂

  3. Hey,
    Yeah Bruce Stewart has some good whakaaro (ideas) eh. howd you hear of him cos I thought you were a Canadian or American or something??

    • I read a book by Jensen, D. (2000). A language older than words. New York: Context Books. He interviewed Stewart. I am an American, going to graduate school to be a teacher. I read a lot. Do you have any good book titles along the lines of Stewart that you can share?

      • Hey david,
        Actually there is a new book just out called Kaitiaki: Maori and the Environment, which is along those same lines.
        It’s editted by Rachel Selby and Pataka Moore from Te Wananga o Raukawa (a Maori university near Wellington) Pataka teaches Maori environmental management and Maori science there.

        I haven’t read it yet as I only just discovered it in the book shop at uni yesterday and don’t have a copy yet. It’s available at http://www.fishpond.co.nz but I’m not sure if you can access that website overseas. Could also check Amazon out, may be on there.


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