Here’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself: Why do I feel so tired this year?
Believe it or not, there’s probably a simple explanation beyond wildfires and coronavirus: dehydration. Exacerbated by the loss of drinking fountains, dehydration can be a major source of fatigue in daily life – even though in-person school days take up a fraction of the time they used to. The pandemic has forced the school administration to encourage students to bring water bottles, leading to an obvious question: should you make the switch to reusable bottles? Which option is better for the environment, while also being safe to drink from?
At a glance, the answer seems clear. Over recent decades, plastic bottles have quickly turned from a light and sterile way of drinking to a beach-clogging, turtle-choking nightmare. Plastic water bottles are commonly composed of polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET. Creating the necessary plastic resins requires the heating of hydrocarbons within fossil fuels such as natural gas and petroleum – leading to an estimated footprint of about 3 ounces of carbon dioxide per one 500-milliliter plastic bottle. Popular brands like S’well and Hydroflask market their stylish and reusable stainless-steel water bottles as being an environmentally friendly alternative, but to what extent is that true?
The metals that compose a reusable canteen don’t exactly grow on trees – they need to be extracted from deep within the ground. This requires vehicles with drills that, in all likelihood, run on fossil fuels. Furthermore, processing the Nickel and Chromium ores that are extracted releases not only greenhouse gases, but also carcinogens and other toxic chemicals into the air and soil. Both types of bottles also need to be transported using cargo ships that run on fuel – but metal bottles typically weigh more and ship in lower volumes. The pandemic also highlights another problem; Rather than simply tossing it into the trash, washing a metal bottle takes energy to pump, heat, and chemically treat the water used to clean it.
In summary, making a steel bottle requires about seven times the amount of fossil fuel, fourteen times more greenhouse gases, and hundreds of times more extracted metal that poses health risks to both workers and ecosystems.
However, the long term benefit is equally considerable. After about fifty uses, a metal bottle becomes better for the climate than its plastic counterpart. After about five hundred uses, it becomes better for every aspect of the environment.
There is no simple solution to whether you should use plastic or metal water bottles. The simple answer is to just always drink from the tap, but considering the absence of drinking fountains in school, it all depends on your situation. If you stay home a lot, don’t get fooled by the clever marketing of metal bottle brands. If you play sports, travel, or are in any situation that requires portable water often, feel confident in making the switch to reusable – it’s better for the environment.