What is the True Price of Harm of a Plastic Water or Beverage Bottle?

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There are a number of initiatives to promote recycling to reduce the amount of plastic waste going into landfills, the environment and oceans. While plastic recycling has an important role to play, more impactful is reducing plastic use, and part of that reduction would be us, the consumer, knowing what the true cost of harm of these plastic bottles do for Climate, Nature and People.

TLC Harmony doesn’t stick with just carbon footprints. If you are going to measure harm, then measure it across the true range of harm areas: Climate, Nature, Biodiversity, People.

My background is in health improvement and crime reduction for the UK government. We do not measure crime just by measuring shoplifting (the highest level of offending) and miss our burglary, robbery, violence and murder, that has a much higher cost to people and the state. So with that said lets check out the harms of a bottle of water.

Lets see if we can put a per bottle cost to total harm impact:

  • Marine Harm cost per bottleDr Nicola Beaumont, environmental economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory estimates that plastic waste costs up to $33,000 per ton. One ton of PET plastic makes 20,000 bottles. So that single plastic bottle of water you just paid $1 dollar for, creates $1.65 US dollars of environmental marine harm if it gets to the ocean. Research published by Nature Sustainability identifies plastic takeaway beverage and food containers are the largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution. The estimate is that 10% of plastic bottles reach the ocean (Greenpeace – Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, 2006), so the minimum marine surcharge per bottle for impacts upon the ocean is 16 cents.

. Cost to Collect and Clean up the Bottles – The UK government reports that plastic packaging producers only pay around 10% of the cost of dealing with packaging waste, leaving the remaining 90% to us the taxpayer to pick up the bill, we are therefore subsidising business to pollute our environment.

The UK government is considering a Deposit Return Scheme of around 20p a bottle but this will not be implemented until 2024.

So the cost to clean up the plastic bottle waste to taxpayers is 20p (28 US cents)

Carbon Dioxide cost per bottle – There is quite a bit of information on the carbon footprint per bottle of water. Larger bottles are equivalently less than smaller bottles. For instance a 500ml of PET plastic beverage bottle produces 82.8g of atmospheric carbon dioxide, this includes: transportation of raw materials: 29% Plastic resins: 30% Creating the bottle: 8%

With a US figure of $51 dollars per ton of CO2 the carbon cost of a plastic bottle of water is 0.00006 cents.

Negligible per bottle. And that is why you do not base your harm analysis on a single variable such as carbon dioxide!

Human Health cost per bottle – This variable will be a little bit harder to assess. There is a mixture here of plastics and/or other toxins directly consumed in the bottled water, but probably more impactful is the microplastics we consume in our food, particularly seafood, caused by plastic waste in our oceans breaking down and entering the food chain.

A study found 93% of bottled water had microplastic within it the analysis looked at 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands, it found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold.

The World Health Organization (WHO) (SAPEA, 2019;
WHO, 2019). Leslie and Depledge (2020), suggest that there is ‘no evidence to indicate a human health concern, but a number of researchers have queried this statement particularly more recently.

Plastic is a human health crisis hiding in plain sight. Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM. Wow its a long report and will take me a while to review and come up with a figure for human health costs per bottle.

Bisphenol A – Other than the plastic there is significant data on a plastic additive found in plastic food and drink containers that that has received considerable attention in relation to its human health effects is bisphenol A. There are numerous studies showing that BPA can migrate out of polycarbonate and contaminate foodstuffs and drinks, and oral ingestion
is considered the major route of exposure of the human population.

Bisphenol A exerts its biological activity predominantly through interaction with steroid hormone receptors, showing both estrogenic and antiandrogenic activity.

BPA at levels found in the general population, around 0.2–20 ng/ml (values given for urinary BPA), is associated with adverse human health effects, including the onset of obesity and cardiovascular disease


LAND and FRESH WATER – The impact to land and fresh water biodiversity hasn’t been developed yet.

I hope you have enjoyed this initial analysis, it is the start of the review and needs further work but already you can start to see that fixating on carbon dioxide alone is an absolute nonsense, no wonder industry says lets stick with Carbon zero targets in a few decades!!!!

I’ll be back!

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