Would Banning Plastic Bottles Help or Hurt the Planet?

– When you see me holding
this plastic bottle of water what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Quick and cheap hydration
that you can grab when you’re on the go, Yet another piece of
plastic that’s just gonna end up polluting the planet. If my butler’s not serving me sustainably harvested
rain water from Finland, well then I’m not interested. When does my trust fund mature, again? Okay, for real, if that’s
you, definitely give me your contact info because I
think we’d really hit it off. If what popped into your
brain was any variation of the first two responses
then you’re no stranger to the dilemma that
plastic bottles create. Short term convenience on one hand, long term threat to the
planet on the other. I can go to Costco right
now and buy a pallet of plastic water bottles. That’s 1900 16.9 ounce
bottles for the cost of 20 cents per bottle. That’s like a year and a
half of water for one person. Now the average American buys more than 300 plastic bottles a year, factor in the rest of
the world and humans use one million plastic bottles per minute. And if you think recycling is
the way to deal with it all, well I have news for you. Fewer than half the bottles
bought in 2016 were collected and recycled and just 7% of those were turned into new bottles. Instead, most end up in
landfills or in the ocean. To deal with this massive
problem, some lawmakers, activists, businesses, and
consumers are wrestling with this question. Should we ban single-use plastic bottles? Early forms of plastic have
existed since the mid 1800s giving us things like PVC for
pipes, shellac for records, and the Bakelite telephone. But when World War II came
along, scientists diverted all their plastic technology
to help with the war effort. So after the war, all this
plastic needed to go somewhere. So why not the American consumer? What we got was a plastic
explosion; Tupperware, Swanson TV dinners,
Barbie dolls, you name it and it was probably made of plastic. The plastic explosion
has never really stopped that’s why today it’s estimated
that humans have created over eight billion tons of plastic. Most of which still exists. See, plastic doesn’t ever
really break down completely or biodegrade. It just breaks apart into
smaller and smaller pieces over time. These tiny bits of plastic
make their way into oceans creating a plastic soup of pollution that can get into the bellies
of all kinds of marine animals like fish, pelicans, and turtles. Some research studies
predict that by 2050, pound for pound, plastic
in the ocean will outweigh all the fish. Now let’s take a moment to think about how much plastic that is. That’s a lot of plastic. To combat all this, some cities, states, and even whole countries
are doing what they do best, passin’ some laws. San Diego recently became
the largest city in the U.S. To ban styrofoam food
and drink containers. California now bans most
stores from handing out those flimsy, single-use
bags to customers. The entire European Union
can now put you in jail for five years if you’re
caught with a straw. In fact, just saying the word
straw gets you a $100 fine. Okay, those last two things are not true. The EU is just going to
ban stuff like straws and plastic plates starting in 2021. I was hoping at least
France would taunt you with a fresh baguette as punishment. But no. Next up on the chopping block, and that’s a wood chopping block, might be plastic bottles. And why not? About 70% of plastic water
bottles bought in the U.S. Are not recycled and so end
up in the oceans as part of that plastic soup we were
talking about earlier. And almost all plastic bottles
are made from fossil fuels. In fact, the Pacific Institute,
a non-profit research group in Oakland, California, found that it took about 17 million barrels of oil to produce enough plastic for the
bottles of water consumed by Americans in 2006. And since then, consumption
has increased by 65% meaning, Americans need over
28 million barrels of oil to fuel their plastic water
bottle needs for one year. All right, quick side bar,
that sounds like a lot and it is a lot. But in total, the U.S.
consumes more oil than that every two days. Put that in your General
Electric CF6 jet engine and burn it. In 2013, Concord, Massachusetts
became the first U.S. city to ban most single-use
plastic water bottles. That same year, the University of Vermont started a similar ban. And for six years, up until
2017, dozens of national parks implemented restrictions
on bottled water sales. According to the National Park Service, those restrictions prevented
up to 112,000 pounds of plastic from being sold
and discarded each year. Along with up to 140 metric
tons of carbon dioxide emissions and guys, remember, tap water is free, and assuming it’s safe
to drink where you live, why not get yourself a
trendy, reusable water bottle? Sure if it’s full, it can feel
like you’re carrying around a bowling ball but it’s probably
worth the inconvenience. (metal bottle clanks) Now I’ve got to admit,
going into this story, banning plastic bottles to
help save the environment felt like a no brainer to me. But the more I looked into
it, the more I realized it wasn’t so simple. To start with, in many areas of the world, clean drinking water is only available due to the miracle of
single-use plastic bottles. I mean, even in the U.S.
Look at Flint, Michigan. They’ve had a literal state
of emergency for years now due to lead contamination
in their drinking water. If I lived in Flint and
I had to choose between plastic water bottles or
drinking contaminated water, I’m picking bottled water. And outright bans can have
unintended consequences. After the University of
Vermont instituted their ban on selling single-use plastic
water bottles on campus, total shipments of all plastic bottles actually increased 20% as people bought other plastic bottled beverages
like soda and juice instead. So if there was a ban on every kind of single-use
plastic bottle tomorrow, would we just increase our
use of single-use containers made from something else? Let’s talk about these
plastic bottle alternatives because they’re not necessarily
any better for the planet. You’ve got aluminum cans,
they’re largely recycled from previously used cans, thumbs up. More so even than plastic
bottles, double thumbs up. But when cans are made from new aluminum, it’s not so great for the environment. Three words for you:
mining, refining, smelting. Glass bottles have a
problem too, they’re heavy. A 16 ounce glass bottle can
weigh over 10 times more than a 16 ounce plastic bottle. So transporting them all
requires 40% more energy which most likely means burning more fuel which obviously isn’t
good for the environment. And then there’s the
eco-friendly corn-based plastic. That’s gotta be okay, right? Well, while it does biodegrade eventually, it can still take hundreds of years. Plus, it has to be kept
separate from regular plastic because it can’t be recycled the same way. It needs to go to special
composting facilities. All these things cost money and fuel too. So the next time you reach for a bottle to quench your thirst, something, something insert something smooth outro line here, what? Really? Did we not finish the script in time guys? Is that how we’re gonna
finish the episode? All right, so what do y’all think? Is banning single-use
plastic bottles a good idea? Let us know in the comments below. Also there’s a new show I
want y’all to check out, Say It Loud. The series celebrates black
history, culture, and context. The show explores black
identity and finds joy in the many ways black folks
have influenced American life. Check it out. If you’re a middle or high school teacher, you can get your students
talking about plastic bottles on KQED Learn which should
be right over here somewhere. Again, I’m your host Miles Best. Thanks for watching and
we’ll see you guys next time. Bye.