Ok. So by now it’s pretty clear to most people that we have a plastic problem. Our oceans are literally swimming in plastic.
The question is: what can we do about it?
There is a fairly simple solution. But before we get to the solution, we need to understand the problem and how we got here.
Out of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced only 9% is recycled. More recently that figure is about 14% but the fact is that even when the intentions are good, we are terrible at recycling plastics still poses big challenges.
For simplicity, we will focus on single-use plastic water bottles but many other plastics such as bags, cigarette buts, diapers, food packaging, other beverages, microbeads from clothes, etc. are equally important.
A clear example: Bottled water
The bottled water market globally keeps growing with an approximate 600 million households now consuming bottled water. In 2017 the bottled water market reached a volume of 391 billion litres after growing at an average of 6% per year during 2009–2016. At the current rate of growth, 90 million more homes will consume bottled water by 2022.
* Households with access to electricity and water (WHO)
** Estimates based on population and bottled water consumption. In some cases, it may include large bottles that are refilled.
Assuming that each household consumes about 2 bottles per day on average this means 576 million x 365 = 210 billion bottles per year. This aligns pretty well with the estimate of a total of 480 billion plastic bottles consumed annually whereof 50% are water.
Why are so many people drinking bottled water?
During the past 30 years, tap water quality in Europe and North America vastly improved both in terms of taste and quality. Despite this, bottled water consumption went from zero to the staggering numbers above.
The main reasons cited by consumers are:
- Prefer the taste of bottled water
- Concerned about the quality and health impact of tap water
- Replacing sugary beverages
- Convenience of bottled water
In addition to this, the bottled water industry has actively been promoting the health benefits of mineral and spring water for many years. Due to this almost half of the population believe bottled water is healthier than tap water.
How can we solve this?
There are many very challenging problems in the world such as climate change, inequality and terrorism that are extremely difficult to solve. Bottled water is not one of them.
As a matter of fact, bottled water is completely unnecessary for most households. In North America and Europe more than 95% households have access to clean tap water. In many other areas of the world with access to tap water, it can easily be made safe with an affordable filter.
Despite this too many homes choose bottled water due to taste preference or misinformed health concerns. Governments have a responsibility to educate people and provide guidelines on solutions for drinking water just like they do for recycling, water consumption, alcohol and general health.
This includes informing people about the problems bottled water is causing in terms of transportation, waste and plastic pollution and provide alternatives. For low- income families it may even be advisable to subsidise solutions for clean drinking water.
With the help of education and regulation Europe and North America could cut bottled water consumption by at least 75% in just a couple of years limiting most consumption to sparkling mineral water served on glass bottles. China, India, Mexico and Indonesia that are big consumers of bottled water can do the same, although the quality of local tap water requires more stringent regulation of water filters.
The money saved by consumers will go to other consumption and thus creating new jobs replacing the bottled water industry.
If we do the same thing for all the major groups of single-use plastics, then plastic waste can be vastly reduced as an issue.
What are we waiting for? Let’s start lobbying family, friends and politicians now!
I’m Co-founder of TAPP Water with a mission to provide easy and affordable solutions for clean and environmentally friendly water.