Food News

This is What Happens to Your Plastic Bottle

June 10, 2016

We talk a lot about reducing food waste in the kitchen and plastic waste at lunch: Cook with scraps; pack your salads in jars instead of buying something premade and clamshelled—you know the drill.

But what about the bottles of juices, the endless iced coffees, the filtered waters from high up in the Swiss Alps? They're something to worry about, too.

These are sparkling waters—but close enough!

Sales of bottled water are on the rise—and it's the bright spot of the bottled beverage industry. According to The Food Institute blog, the consumption of bottled water in the U.S. has increased significantly over the past fifteen years: In 2000, 4.7 billion gallons were consumed; in 2015, that number rose to 11.7 billion.

If a bottle of water holds 16.9 fluid ounces and there are about 128 fluid ounces in a gallon, then 11.7 billion gallons of water adds up to roughly 88.6 billion individual plastic bottles. And those personal-sized bottles were "the star product of the period," rising from 16.7 gallons​ per person in 2000 to 36.7 gallons per person in 2015.

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Top Comment:
“If this is in the US alone in 2015, this means that the average # of water bottles consumed by one person (not even including soda!!) would be 4500+ per person. How are you figuring that?”
— Rebecca M.

And all those bottles have to go somewhere.

Even those that make it into a recycling bin, as this new video from Bloomberg news explains, are more likely to become something else—"like carpet or teddy bear stuffing"—than another bottle (and it's likely to undergo that transformation overseas). After just one metamorphosis, its recycling life is over.

At California-based CarbonLite Industries, however, PET—the kind of plastic found in most soda and water bottles—is turned into food-grade beads that can be used to make even more bottles. They process 3 billion plastic bottles a year. That's two bottles per every three people in the entire world—and that's only at one plant, in one year!

It seems more logical, yes, to convert bottles to bottles, but it's not a solution: It's more expensive than plastic-to-teddy bear recycling and, as you'll see in the video, it requires a lot of highly-specialized and sophisticated machinery. Plus, because gas prices are at a low, petroleum-derived plastics are, at the moment, cheaper than those made from recycled plastic (that is, it's more cost-efficient for companies to make bottles with new plastic). And it takes energy—more gas, more emissions—to run any sort of plant.

Bottle-to-bottle recycling may be a good temporary large-picture solution. But on the individual level, reusable water bottles (and thermoses) are unbeatable. They, too, take energy to produce (and to ship), but in the long run, that's a tiny drop in the bucket.

Do you have a very good reason for drinking bottled water? Tell us in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Rebecca Magee
    Rebecca Magee
  • Betsey
  • Sarah Jampel
    Sarah Jampel
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Rebecca M. June 14, 2016
Sarah, can you review the math you did on this? If this is in the US alone in 2015, this means that the average # of water bottles consumed by one person (not even including soda!!) would be 4500+ per person. How are you figuring that?
Sarah J. June 14, 2016
Hi Rebecca! So if the population of the US is 318.9 billion and I estimated 88.6 billion, that's about 278 bottles per person—less than a bottle a day.

Also, I was calculating for individual bottles, but admittedly, lots of consumption probably happens in larger quantities than that—in offices, cafeterias, summer camps, etc.
Rebecca M. June 14, 2016
Hi Sarah! Ah that solves it. But the US population (as of 2014) is 318.9 million, not billion.
Sarah J. June 14, 2016
Sorry, that was just a typo. Math should still work out though—my gaff doesn't translate to the calculation, I think.
Betsey June 13, 2016