Last week we went to our kids’ back-to-school picnic. It was a beautiful event, except for one thing: 700 single-use plastic water bottles – a donation from a well-meaning real estate agent. At the end of the evening, the tables were littered with these bottles. Many of them were full but for a few sips.
I noticed another parent emptying the bottles on the parched shrubs and putting them in the recycling bin. Good for the shrubs, I guess. But other folks were tossing the bottles into the trash, which of course is headed to the landfill and oceans – where they are wreaking havoc with our environment and health.
The Huffington Post reports that the US consumes 30 billion disposable water bottles per year -- 60% of the world’s total, even though we are less than 5% of the population. It takes about 17 million barrels of oil to produce those bottles – enough to fuel 1 million cars a year. In recognition of the environmental impact, more than 60 universities in the US and Canada have banned disposable water bottles on their campuses.
According to Business Insider, bottled water is no safer or cleaner than tap water, and (surprise!) about half of all bottled water is derived from tap water. In blind taste tests, tap water consistently ranks at or above the level of bottled water. With certain exceptions, we don’t need, and shouldn’t use, disposable plastic water bottles.
Back to the story: I spoke with the organizers of the back-to-school event, and they agreed that it was appalling to see all the unnecessary bottles. They also said it had been a real challenge to haul all that water to the event. In the end, we came up with several ideas for next year:
I left feeling better. These were middle schoolers, after all. A small subset of humanity. There was agreement that disposable bottles would not be at future school events. Problem solved, right?
Not so fast. Just for fun, the next day as I was walking through downtown Menlo Park, I peeked into every recycling and trash bin (and there were many – usually with recycling and trash right next to each other, each clearly marked). Check out the photos I took of the trash bins, below. Without exception, every single trash bin had recycling in it. And sadly, some of the recycling bins had trash in them. At the risk of being marked as a dumpster diver, I started compulsively moving the items to their proper bin. When I got to items that were down lower than I could reach without risking toppling in (like when Lucy tried to fish a letter out of the public mailbox -- where was Ethel when I needed her?), I stopped. This was crazy. Why could not the good people of Menlo Park get it right?
The next night, I went to a tailgater on the Stanford campus before the football game. These were Stanford students, parents and families -- generally a pretty smart lot. Again, bins clearly marked as “Recycling” or “Landfill” were readily available. And yet, the Landfill bins had plastic (and glass) bottles scattered throughout. I rolled up my sleeves, reached in and moved the offenders to their proper bin. If certain people saw me, my kids’ chances of admission were ruined. But I didn’t care. If Stanford people can’t recycle properly, who can?
If this admittedly small set of data is representative, it appears that, at least in public, when it comes to recycling disposable plastic bottles, we Americans are ignorant, apathetic or both. In fact, the EPA reports that only about 30% of plastic water bottles get recycled. And even for those bottles that do get recycled, recycling takes a lot of energy.
I’m convinced that if we want our planet to remain habitable, safe and beautiful, we’ve got to break the single-use plastic bottle habit. The change has to start with me. Here’s my list of goals, in order from easiest to hardest:
Below: Recycling bins -- clearly marked, on every block in downtown Menlo Park -- and the recycling that was in every single one of them.