Plastic overproduction is a worldwide problem, not just in terms of the non-biodegradable by-products it crowds the landfills with, but also in the tertiary effects it has on our ecosystem and economy. Case-in-point: the massive amount of energy and fuel waste that occurs alongside the manufacturing of plastic bottles. The way plastic is produced and the quantity in which it is manufactured all lead to unnecessary excesses that damage the environment and have unintended economic consequences.
While plastic waste from the mass of bottles we create is a danger in itself, the additional effects it has on other resources are just as important to note. Moreover, tackling plastic waste is crucial in helping kerb many other aspects of fuel and energy inefficiencies that are plaguing the world as a whole.
In this article, we will go over some of the most important side-effects of plastic bottle production that spill over into other areas of waste.
The world currently generates around 600 billion plastic bottles per year. While this obviously leads to immense amounts of plastic waste, it’s also a massive strain on the energy sector.
Studies have shown that producing bottled water requires 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per litre by the time the product is market-ready. In context, it is estimated that this is 2000 times what it takes to get tap water by the litre. But why?
Primarily, producing plastic uses up an exorbitant amount of water and electricity due to the packaging. One of the major inefficiencies of bottled water is that the entire cost burden, both for the manufacturer and for the end consumer, lies with the plastic containers it comes in. The process itself takes up the majority of the price tag. Luckily, many businesses are now transitioning to boxed or canned water.
Since the plastic requires melting and then cooling to form the bottle shape, 1 bottle costs about as much energy as what most low-cost solar panels produce in a day. One single plastic bottle sets the energy grid back by a full day’s worth of solar panel energy. While solar panels do undoubtedly help, they may not be enough on their own.
This is one of the primary reasons it’s not enough for individuals to transition to green energy but to also rethink the inefficient processes that lead to industrial-scale energy waste.
Countries like the US tend to use oil and its derivatives to produce millions of tons of plastics all over the world which consumes this finite resource. Plastic is not only produced from oil but also puts a strain on the fossil fuel-based energy grid that is dominant in most countries. The mix of transportation along with the usage of oil in production and as an energy input for the electric grid is a major source of fuel inefficiencies.
In 2007, the US population consumed 33 billion liters of plastic bottled water, which is the equivalent of 110 liters (30 gallons) per person. Keep in mind, that’s only one country.
The energy required to produce 33 billion liters is around 32-54 million barrels of oil. PET bottles (the most common water bottles, but not the only form) account for the energy equivalent of 17 billion barrels of oil when all steps of the manufacturing and distribution process are taken into account.
Any estimate of fuel consumption also needs to take into account that all of these bottles (and the raw water itself) need to be transported. The trucks and planes in the cargo network of vast multinational corporations use up even more energy than the entire expense of bottling and sealing the final product. These also incur higher transportation costs when empty/used containers and bottles have to be transported to a recycling center or landfill.
Moreover, less than 10% of the plastic we use gets recycled leading to even more waste than necessary. This is primarily due to how there is a lack of capacity for recycling most plastics.
In turn, this leads to more fossil fuels being consumed just to keep up with the production demands for bottles which creates a vicious cycle. While recycling is useful and certainly helps decrease the energy consumption of plastic production, there needs to be more capacity to help meet the amount of plastic we throw out.
Waste and cleanup both use a lot of energy and require running transport networks that operate on fuel over large distances. This exacerbates the problems presented by plastic waste from beyond production and over into the issue of waste removal and re-processing.
Clean-up activities on the ground can cost $15 billion (USD), according to the WWF. Similarly, cleaning up plastic from the ocean presents its challenges in terms of operational costs for machines and crews presenting worldwide costs of roughly $3.7 trillion. The scale of the plastic crisis is so large that even by introducing plastic pollution clean up technologies, it will be hard to fully clean up our oceans for ever without pollution prevention and reduction of plastic production.
In terms of floating plastic waste in rivers and other bodies of water (a large part of which is attributed to plastic bottles), fishing it out could cost between $5.6 and $15 billion. On top of that, plastic pollution is a detriment to the earnings of fisheries and the aquaculture industry ($0.3-4.3 billion in lost revenue), as well as tourism ($0.2-2.4 billion).
Similarly, even with ocean clean-up and recycling programs, we should still consider energy waste in terms of transport and the refurbishment of plastic bottles. While these programs are immensely helpful, it is usually best that the bottle does not end up in the ocean in the first place.
A one-litre plastic bottle requires 2 litres of water during its manufacturing, so the average bottled water producer is burning through twice the amount of water the end product can store. On top of that, we put one litre of water into every produced plastic bottle, so it takes roughly 3 litres of water to produce each one.
On top of that, there are cleaning costs and transport expenses, which can push the water usage per bottle to about 6 or 7 times that of the amount you actually paid for. Most of this is consumed by machinery, drilling, and transport, which would be kerbed by decreasing the production and consumption of plastic bottled water.
As a final note: it’s also worth understanding that when you pay for water in a plastic bottle, 90% of that price tag is a by-product of the plastic bottle, the plastic production process, and associated costs unrelated to the resource you paid for. The actual water accounts for 10% of those costs. When we talk about inefficiencies, it should be apparent that paying for the packaging should not account for the overwhelming share of the actual item being bought.
This is why plastic bottle usage is best reduced to a minimum from the get-go. More preventative measures that kerb consumption should take priority over post hoc fixes which can have diminishing returns. The entire concept of single-use plastics lends itself to these structural problems where inefficiencies pile up and cascade into problematic spirals of mass waste.