Find it! Refillable water and beverage bottles
When buying refillable water bottles, choosing bottles made from stainless steel is probably your best choice. If you choose bottles with plastic liners, go for ones that don't contain bisphenol A (BPA).
Another possibility is to buy thermal stainless steel travel mugs with leak-proof lids — designed for commuting coffee drinkers — as all-purpose refillable drink containers for coffee, water, and other hot or cold beverages.
Using refillable bottles for water and beverages helps you go green because
- Bottled water is packaged in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which emits harmful toxins such as nickel, ethyl benzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene into our air and water during production.
- Eighty-six percent of plastic water bottles used in the US aren't recycled.
- Water bottles disposed of in landfills or tossed by the side of the road can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade in the ground.
- With the exception of a tiny amount of incinerated plastic, all 1 billion tons of plastic manufactured to date is still in the environment.
The Container Recycling Institute reports that an astounding 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the US aren't recycled. Not only do plastics end up in landfills, they also cover large areas of the ocean with floating refuse. An area of the Pacific Ocean — 10 million square miles, or about the size of Africa — has been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Dump: it's filled with industrial flotsam, 90 percent of which is plastic. About 80 percent of this plastic is discarded on land: blown from garbage trucks and landfills, spilled from rail cars, and dumped down storm drains. Due to winds and ocean currents, these plastics end up in this giant floating garbage dump. There are six other known oceanic gyres, also collecting plastic waste.
Controversies and related health issuesIf you've been reading all the stories in the press questioning the safety of plastic water bottles, you're probably wondering: Should I throw out the plastic refillable bottle I already have or is it safe to keep using it?
Most refillable plastic bottles are made from either polypropylene — a slightly opaque or translucent plastic — with a #5 recycling code on the bottom, or polycarbonate — a hard, transparent plastic — with a #7 recycling code. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recommends choosing plastic products with a #1, #2, #4, or #5 inside the triangular recycling code for serving and storing food and beverages, and avoiding #3, #6, and #7. Note that #7 just designates a plastic that isn't #1 - #6: bioplastic bottles also use the #7 recycling code and they're perfectly safe to use.
Virtually all the materials used to make water and beverage bottles have been the subject of controversy, with the exception of glass. For a discussion of the controversies surrounding bio-plastics, see Choose bio-bottled water.
Polyethylene terephthalate and High density polyethyleneOne widely circulated story is that PET bottles used to package most bottled waters shouldn't be reused because they harbor harmful bacteria. According to the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division, this myth resulted from a study by the University of Calgary, which found bacteria present in water samples taken from bottles that had been refilled by elementary school students without being cleaned. The study concluded that the bacteria were the result of "inadequate personal hygiene practices on the part of students reusing the bottles." The fact that the bottles were made from PET plastic had no bearing on the study. Washing a water bottle after use, just as you would a drinking glass, should rid the bottle of harmful bacteria.
Some studies have shown that PET and HDPE plastic in which bottled water is sold should not be reused, as they were not designed for long-term storage and may leach potential toxins such as antimony, a debated carcinogen. Antimony and several of its derivative compounds can be toxic (causing headache, dizziness, or depression) or even fatal, depending on dose.
Polycarbonate and Bisphenol A (BPA)
Many hard plastic water bottles made popular by companies like Nalgene are made of polycarbonate, which is manufactured using a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). BPA has been shown to leach from plastics under certain conditions and to have potential hormone-disrupting, toxic, and carcinogenic effects.
On April 18, 2008, Canada Health — the Canadian equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — announced that it plans to make Canada the first country in the world to ban baby bottles containing bisphenol A. The Canadian decision followed on the heels of the April 14, 2008 release of a US National Toxicology Program (NTP) Draft Brief on Bisphenol A. Experiments in the NTP study found precancerous tumors and early-onset puberty in animals given low doses of BPA. The study raised particular concerns that BPA could cause neural and behavioral effects on fetuses, infants, and children. BPA mimics estrogen in the blood stream, which raises the possibility that it could also contribute to breast cancer. The NTP study found "some concern" not only for neurobehavioral effects, but for precancerous breast and prostate lesions, and delayed puberty in females. US Senator Charles Schumer of New York blasted the FDA for not taking stronger action, saying the chemical should be banned from all children's products and food containers. As a result of these developments and pressure from consumers, Nalgene, a leading maker of refillable water bottles, announced it will substitute BPA-free alternatives in its Nalgene Outdoor line of polycarbonate plastic containers.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) defended the safety of BPA in a press release, dated April 13, 2008, and disputes several of the popular claims about the safety of polycarbonate plastic bottles. The first claims that filling polycarbonate bottles with boiling water releases high levels of BPA, which later leaches into the drinking water they're filled with; the second claim is that polycarbonate bottles shouldn't be washed in a dishwasher, which will cause unsafe levels of BPA to be released into water later put in the bottle; and the third related claim is that old or scratched polycarbonate bottles release unsafe levels of BPA, and that they shouldn't be cleaned with a brush. You can read the ACC's responses to these claims on their website.
AluminumThe use of aluminum in food containers and cookware was called into question after trace levels of aluminum were found in the autopsied brain tissue of Alzheimer's patients. Studies have since cast doubt whether there's any conclusive correlation. Sigg, a leading supplier of aluminum bottles, lines its bottles with a water-based lining intended to prevent leaching of chemicals from the aluminum and any residue buildup.
Stainless steelKlean Kanteen, a supplier of stainless steel bottles, notes that aluminum bottles are generally lined with epoxy resins. Sigg's water-based lining mentioned above is proprietary, and the company has not described it as a resin lining. Stainless steel is widely accepted as a preferred inert material for medical and food-handling uses. Stainless steel is made with nickel, however, which elicits an allergic response in about 10 to 20 percent of the population. It's also associated with lung and nasal sinus cancers in workers at nickel refineries or nickel processing plants and nickel is believed to be passed from mother to infant through breast milk, or mother to fetus through the placenta. Exposure, however, requires direct physical contact (with coins or costume jewelry, for example, or from working in a nickel-processing plant) or direct ingestion, which is unlikely with stainless steel.
Keep your bottles clean to avoid health risksRefillable bottles can develop bacteria and mold buildup if they're not cleaned properly between uses. If they're filled with acidic fruit juices, they're especially prone to developing mold during hot weather. The solution is to give your refillable bottle a proper cleaning, just as you would your other drinking glasses and dishware.
To clean refillable water bottles, do one of the following:
- Wash in the dishwasher in the top rack away from the heating element.
- Soak in hot, soapy water.
- Soak in hot water with baking soda.
- Soak in hot water with lemon.
To prevent bacteria or mold buildup:
- Air dry bottles completely after washing, or
- Store bottles in the freezer immediately after washing to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold.
- Sterilize a recycled toothbrush by running it through the dishwasher. Put a little baking soda on it and scrub the seals. The bristles will get into the crevasses of the rubber seals which often don't dry well. Afterward, rinse thoroughly and run the bottle, lid, and toothbrush through a hot dishwasher cycle.
- polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE): A plastic polymer in the polyester family, mainly derived from petroleum and used to make beverage bottles, textiles, and industrial moldings. It has a resin code of #1 for plastics recycling.
- Environmental Working Group (EWG) - Are stainless steel water bottles safe? Find out the Environmental Working Group's advice about choosing a refillable water bottle, as well as tips on how to avoid bisphenol A.
- The American Chemistry Council - Are the Myths About Polycarbonate Bottles True? Hear what the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council has to say about the latest research on bisphenol A and refillable water bottles.
- Orion magazine - "Polymers are Forever" by Alan Weisman Read this eye-opening article that discusses, among other things, the 10 million square miles of ocean that's become a floating garbage dump: you'll never think of plastics the same way again.
- New American Dream - Bottled water: overflowing on the environment
- Orion magazine - "Polymers are Forever" by Alan Weisman
- E/The Environmental Magazine - Message in a Bottle: Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither CLEANER nor GREENER Than Tap Water
- US Department of Health & Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: How can nickel affect my health?