Larry Slotnik, co-leader of Zero Waste Arlington, offers his opinion on the criticality of reducing our dependence on single-use plastics.

As of November 1, Arlington residents can no longer purchase plain bottled water at a convenience store, pharmacy, supermarket or restaurant. The sale of any plastic bottle of water under one liter in size is now banned. Arlington took this bold action because the container — the plastic bottle — is slowly killing us. I am thrilled that Arlington took a step that our state and national leaders have not yet tackled.

For me, personally, the impact will be negligible. My family and I drink Arlington’s tap water at home, school, and work. I already bring refillable water bottles in the car during warm months, or if I know I’ll be eating food on the go.

Water is the best beverage humans can drink. It’s what humans (and all mammals) were designed to drink to keep the body functioning as it should. However, the epidemic of single-use plastic containers used for packaging in the food and beverage industry presents a threat of enormous consequence to human health.

According to the Sierra Club, the total energy required for
bottled water production
is as much as 2,000 times the
energy needed to produce tap water.

The harmful impact of plastic manufacturing

With plastic so prevalent, it is easy to forget where it comes from, how it is made, and the damage it causes to the environment and our health. 

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Extraction

First, raw materials are needed. They are sourced by EXTRACTION of natural gas, often by the nasty hydraulic fracturing process in which fracking fluids are injected under high pressure into an already-drilled well for the purpose of fracturing bedrock to stimulate a well that isn’t producing gas at a profitable rate. Fracking pollutes groundwater and surface water, and causes leakage of methane (natural gas,) a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Fracking technology has indeed generated enormous increases in well productivity, enabling the U.S. to begin exporting large quantities of fossil fuels. This benefits the fossil fuel industry, but, where does that leave the rest of us?

Bottled water bottles are made from a material called polyethylene terephthalate (“PET” in industry jargon, a.k.a. #1 plastic.) The source material for PET is petroleum. More specifically, natural gas liquids (NGLs) that are made at a processing plant through extraction from raw natural gas.

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Production
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Consumption

Of course, we now arrive at CONSUMPTION. Remember that often-used term in the 1960s - 1980s U.S. automotive industry about “planned obsolescence,” with Detroit putting out cars that were either out of style or no longer serviceable after around 5 years?

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Disposal

Well, in the case with bottled water, we have an extreme version of that, where the time between consumption and DISPOSAL can be a matter of minutes. With other food and beverages packaged in a transparent PET container, maybe a matter of hours or days. What a system! And since most single-use water bottles are put in the trash rather than recycled, the methane generated from their incineration pollutes our air and water.

The problem with plastics

Here’s the problem: the world was told that plastic was a miracle material about more than 60 years ago. It is light-weight, virtually indestructible, and cheap to manufacture at scale. However…

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Fracking

With fracking, raw materials have become abundant. As a society, can we accept the indirect and damaging costs associated with single-use plastics? Have we awoken to the second wave of massive deception that the fossil fuel industry is employing?

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Plastic packaging is not highly recyclable

Similar to how the fossil-fuel industry understood the impact on our climate of the burning of fossil fuels for most forms of transportation and for heating our buildings, but did not disclose this research to the federal government nor the general public, the fossil fuel industry has been trying to convince us over the past 25 years that plastic packaging is highly-recyclable. But it's not.

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Recycling burden falls on communities

And the industry has cleverly foisted the burden of recycling programs on municipalities and the general public. However, over the past five years, the truth has come out that the majority of the bales of our “recycled” packaging has been shipped to China so that they can deal with it. Now, they no longer accept these contaminated plastic bales. The plastic bottles we purchase and then “recycle” are not nearly as high quality as new plastic bottles or containers sold in the United States.

Recycling is not enough

National estimates are now indicating that perhaps less than 10% of all the plastic packaging produced actually gets recycled into another item of plastic packaging. Why?

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Abundance of fossil fuels

The abundance of fossil fuels, the low cost of feedstock to the steam cracker plants -- resulting in the low cost of the bottles, clamshell packages, and everything else that sparkles on your supermarket shelves.

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Scarcity of community recycling bins

Most single-use plastic bottles of water (and other single-use items such as take-out containers) end up in the trash because community recycling bins are sparse. Why? Municipalities can’t handle the diversity in this stream nor level of contamination they find in unsupervised bins. Consumers and industry bear these burdens equally.

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Increased plastics production

Plastic production has gone haywire and recycling plants cannot keep up with the consumer market-driven diversity of plastic containers.

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Lack of Extended Producer Responsibility legislation

Recycling is most effective when there is a market for recycled “raw” materials, but with no Extended Producer Responsibility legislation bringing order to the dizzying variety of consumer plastics, waste management companies are struggling and markets are diminishing.

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Burden falls on consumers and communities

With no pressure on producers to reduce plastics from their packaging (do cucumbers really need to be individually wrapped in plastic?), the burdens of collection, sorting, and disposal fall unfairly on communities and consumers. Producers should be financially supporting these efforts.

The bottom line that should be considered and accepted is that this miracle material we call plastic… as it’s evolved in so many dimensions to serve consumer products markets … is NOT a recyclable material in the same way that paper and cardboard products are. Those recovered “fiber” materials have vibrant secondary markets. Plastic does not. Therefore, significant regulation in the way plastic is introduced into consumer markets must be our goal. REDUCTION has to be a part of it. Consumers should REFUSE plastic when it’s an option in their everyday lives.  

We’re addicted to single-use plastic packaging, and this is not going to end in a good way. We have to start somewhere. Since there is a great alternative to bottled water – a reusable bottle filled with Arlington’s safe and delicious tap water – I am elated that Arlington is taking this first important step.

Moving forward

Zero Waste Arlington brought the proposed ban on bottled water sales to Town Meeting last spring. Volunteers like myself met with dozens of store owners prior to Town Meeting to share information and solicit feedback. Zero Waste Arlington estimates that more than 700,000 bottles of plain water are sold every year in Arlington alone. Bottles that will no longer litter our streets or be incinerated and pollute our air.

This ban has already spurred discussion about our addiction to single-use plastics. It is getting our town leaders to rethink how to make drinking water more accessible to the public, both in municipal buildings and outdoors where we gather. Hopefully, this simple step forward will open doors to additional community dialogue about what additional actions we can take to remove single-use plastics from our community. 

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