Death and Destruction: The life of a plastic bottle

by MyVerduraCare , on October 27, 2021

The life of your plastic bottle started hundreds of millions of years ago when prehistoric plants and animals died. Through the years, the carbon in those organisms was compacted by the weight of the soil above. This is the process that creates fossil fuels, from which they receive their name. Standard plastics, or petroleum-based polymers, are made from byproducts of the fossil fuel industry. Plastics use a small portion of fossil fuels, but by 2050, it is expected that 20% of all oil consumption will be attributed to plastics.

Over 99% of plastics use fossil fuels as a feedstock, including your single-use bottle. This plastic is an amazing material: it’s durable, moldable, and preserves the contents within it. Since the 1940s, the world has been obsessed with plastics because of their utility and potential. However, plastics are incredibly harmful to the environment. 

Your plastic bottle is most likely a Number 1 plastic, meaning the plastic is made from Polyethylene terephthalate or PET. PET is one of the most common consumer plastics. To turn PET into a water bottle, the plastic is heated and molded into bottle shapes. Then it is filled by the bottling and beverage company and shipped to you.

Once the plastic bottle reaches you, and you’ve drunk its contents, you have the choice to recycle the bottle. The issue is that plastic recycling is very particular--you must clean and dry the plastic to keep it from contamination. Then, if your municipal recycler accepts PET plastic, you can give them the bottle to recycle. They most likely sell the plastic to another recycler, who will shred the bottle, melt the shredded plastic, and form a new product out of the recycled PET. While PET is one of the most recyclable plastics, it degrades in quality in each recycling phase, so your plastic bottle can never be a plastic bottle again. Instead, it may be used in a t-shirt or a carpet. Plastic is not infinitely recyclable. 

If you throw the plastic bottle into the trash or forget it on a park bench, that plastic bottle will end up in nature, maybe in a forest or the ocean. Plastic does not decompose in nature the same way a banana would. The heat, sun, wind, and water break the plastic down into tiny pieces, so microscopic that we cannot see them. Animals may ingest those microplastics, which then become embedded into their tissue. Animals are not supposed to eat plastic; it can cause serious health defects. This is why proper plastic disposal is so crucial, as plastics cannot be reintegrated into the natural biological cycle. 

Plastic is a monster we have created, and it’s a monster we don’t know how to destroy. Our recycling systems are so inadequate that 91% of the plastic we make isn’t recycled at all. If we can’t recycle our plastic, then it ends up in our oceans where it harms sea life. The only control we have over the plastic lifecycle is at the beginning. If the plastic bottle is never made at all, we don’t have to worry about disposing of it. We can choose not to buy plastic water bottles. By opting out of the single-use plastic cycle, we can prevent the destruction of our ecosystems.

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