Monday, May 18, 2009

Getting a drink... such a challenge!

Getting a drink of water is no simple matter these days.  
Instead of coming out of the tap and landing in a glass, we now put our water in a plethora of plastics and metals.  Which is best for the environment?  Which is safest for our health?  And, which is most convenient?  It turns out, most of the answers aren't that straightforward.  

How can we evaluate the best choice for a water bottle?  We need to look at a number of factors that include...

Extraction-- how the materials are harvested and the impact of the harvest (i.e. how much water is used, how mining impacts the environment, what chemicals wind up in our water or air)

Manufacturing-- how the bottle is made, including how much material is used, the manufacturing conditions, and the pollutants the plant produces

Distribution-- the process by which the bottle gets to the consumer, including transportation (shipping, trucking, flying) and storage; even the conditions of the store where the product is sold is a factor and the heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting of the retail store can have a significant impact as well

Use-- even a reusable bottle has an impact in its use, it can be a positive impact in that the bottle may prevent the use of disposable bottles, but there are negatives as well, for example, the washing of the bottle uses resources

Disposal-- where the bottle goes when we're done with it, if it's disposable it probably makes it to the trash or, better yet, the recycling bin, fairly quickly; if it's a reusable bottle it probably hangs around a good deal longer, but one day you may lose the top, accidentally leave it behind, and it may also wind up in the trash -- if it makes it to a landfill it won't decompose, but all steel can be recycled

What's Most Important?
What's tricky about the above processes, is that our assumptions don't always prove true.  For example, much is made of how far away products come from, but if you live in NYC and buy something from California, the emissions from trucking the item from California are far less than the emissions from shipping the same item from China.  

In thinking about a drinking bottle, the answers are just as complex.  Popular steel bottles involve some 1400 steps in extraction alone.  Each of these has an environmental impact, and in some respects has a greater impact than creating plastics.  For example, the workers in a mine are often exposed to carcinogens.  Similarly, the manufacturing process may involve ores which can make the process more ore less environmentally friendly.  Or, manufacturing can rely in part on recycled materials.  As mentioned above, the policies of the store where your bottle is sold or even the kind of detergent you use in your dishwasher also contribute to the bottle's overall impact.

In the end, your choice is a conglomerate of impact possibilities.  If you are prone to losing things and would go through 5 stainless steel bottles a year, perhaps using a disposable plastic one is, in fact, far better for the environment.  If you are looking for a bottle to use for the rest of your life, you'll probably pick the most durable, long lasting one so that you never have to replace it.  

1. Disposable Plastic -- definitely the most convenient, but can wreak a sizable impact on the environment.  Plastic is created from petroleum, which reflects a severe harvesting process.  Manufacturing, however, is a relatively simple and green process.  Use is short-lived, and disposal is a large factor here.  

2. Steel Reusable Bottle -- steel bottles are durable and long-lasting, but do still have an impact despite the snazzy Sigg logos and 'Kleen Kanteen' name.  The extraction of steel is an intensive process as anytime a mine is opened up the impact on workers and the environment is substantial.  The manufacturing process also involves considerable energy to work the steel into the shape of the bottle.  Hopefully, you'll hang on to your bottle for a long time and disposal won't be an issue.  

3. Plastic Reusable Bottle -- Assuming you've picked a BPA-free bottle, you don't have to worry about the health impacts of your Nalgene.  Which leaves you to think about the process of making a plastic bottle.  Plastic, whether disposable or reusable, comes from petroleum.  And, plastic recycling is a continually downgrading process, meaning that recycled plastics are reborn as a lesser product, and a step closer to the landfill.  

Reusables -- Plastic or Steel?
This is where things get particularly tricky.  The manufacturing, distribution, and use of these products is quite similar, and the real differences are largely in the extraction process (hopefull you won't be disposing of your reusable bottle!).  

Both a reusable plastic and a reusable steel bottle are made through a considerable extraction process, and the details of each is very case dependent.  For example, if the petroleum is extracted from a company working in Nigeria that is systematically extracting resources, destabilizing the government, and avoiding taxation, the cost of that petroleum is considerably higher in my mind.  Similarly, if the steel comes from an open mine in China where workers are exposed to carcinogens, paid poorly, and overworked, the cost of that steel is also heightened. 

So, there isn't a specific answer here.  The answer, rather, is to pick a company that's policies are accessible on their website, and one where you can feel assured that they are manufacturing products with consideration of what is fair and what is green.  

1 comment:

Felicia said...

Thanks for sharing these thought provokers. My husband and I had a similar conversation after he found out how much I spent on my steel water bottle. I decided on the steel because if I take reasonably good care of it, it will last a very long time. I think it can be recycled when I'm done with it (I need to check). I don't like the taste or smell of some plastics and I'm not convinced that we won't find something else to worry about in the plastic. Lastly, the company that manufactures the steel bottle said they make an effort to monitor the working conditions in their factory in China. I definitely agree that we should make our decisions based on as much information about the options as we can gather. Again, thanks for sharing!