The Miserable Facts About Plastic Bottles

Leave is to our supposedly advanced civilization to muck up a simple act like drinking water. It is said that when the cynic philosopher Diogenes, who, among other things, was the first philosopher of the “Go-Lite” movement, saw a young boy drinking from a stream with his hands, the philosopher tossed aside his cup, grumbling, “A child has beaten me in simplicity of living!”

Now that child’s mother would scold him. We’re past the age where you can just drink from any stream – at least in the western United States (and the Tonto NF in particular).

I don’t buy bottled water because I’m scared of Phoenix tap. I buy it, on occasion, because free with every purchase is a cheap, lightweight, reusable canteen. Whenever I hike or work outside, I choose one of the 6-10 such bottles that lie in the floor of my car, fill it with water, and off I go. I started this habit because 1) I’m cheap and 2) I’m concerned about the growing plastic layer in the ecosystem. Only about 15% of water bottles in the US actually get recycled. Most end up in landfills anyway – or on the floor of my Buick.

I have now been informed by well-meaning co-workers that by doing so, I am poisoning myself. The common belief is that these containers, over time, release toxic chemicals into whatever you store in them, particularly at high temperatures. Or so I was told as I poured coffee from a Styrofoam cup into an empty Gatorade container.

Like most such wisdom of our age, this is 80% crap. But the 20% of truth behind it is somewhat alarming.

Let’s start with the quickest notion to dispute: boiling water in a plastic container does not relase a toxic gas into the liquid. If it did, I would have perished long ago. On the trail, I routinely boil water and then pour it into plastic containers. There are some health risks associated with this (which we’ll get to) , but they are minute compared to water-born illnesses, dehydration, or the traffic on State Highway 87.

(More on that sad state of affairs on my personal blog from last September. You can skip the first 5 paragraphs of political whining to get right to boiling the water).

Now, there’s plastic, and there’s plastic. Late last year, the treehuggers and the chemical industry went a few rounds on the blogosphere about bisphenol-A [BPA] in polycarbonate containers. Lexan, which is – or was – used in Nalgene bottles is a polycarbonate. BPA has been shown to cause reproductive abnormalities in mice.

Polycarbonates, among many other platsics, use recycling symbol #7 (which essentially stands for “other”). The Nalgene bottle I pulled out of my pack has such a symbol.

There are differing viewpoints on this:

“Ditch them now!” from TreeHugger

This may be a problem… from Toxin-Free Canada

This is not a concern... from the US Toxicology Program

My problem with my #7 Nalgene bottle is that it cost $9 from an outdoor shop and weighs 6 oz. An equivalent  drink bottle costs $1.70 from the convenience store and weighs 2 oz. That drink bottle, though, is PETE plastic (symbol #1) which has its own issues. They release antimony, which may or may not be a carcinogenic.

USN reports on PETE plastic bottles.

And a study done at ASU, down the street:

“Nine commercially available bottled waters in the southwestern US (Arizona) were purchased and tested for antimony concentrations as well as for potential antimony release by the plastics that compose the bottles. The southwestern US was chosen for the study because of its high consumption of bottled water and elevated temperatures, which could increase antimony leaching from PET plastics.” […]

“Summertime temperatures inside of cars, garages, and enclosed storage areas can exceed 65 degrees C in Arizona, and thus could promote antimony leaching from PET bottled waters.”

[…]

“Clearly, only a small fraction of the antimony in PET plastic bottles is released into the water. Still, the use of alternative types of plastics that do not leach antimony should be considered, especially for climates where exposure to extreme conditions can promote antimony release from PET plastics.”

What you should look for, then, is bottles made of HDPE (#2) which has not been found to leach anything toxic into the contained liquid (yet). Worth noting that Nalgene is making HDPE bottles. (Though they curiously don’t give a weight…)

So what’s an informed, green hiker to do?

* Buy a #2 bottle (because you won’t find one at the convenience store). There are a lot of different products. I linked to the Nalgene bottle because I had been using their name above.

* Don’t pour your hot coffee into a #1 bottle (at least, not every day).

* When your #1 bottle starts to get scratched up, go ahead and recycle it.

* Don’t let yourself get dehydrated or sick because you’re worried about cancer in laboratory mice.

Because when you find yourself on a hot summer day up to your ankles in mud filtering water from the stagnant, green cattle pond in a desperate attempt to stave off heat exhaustion, nanograms of acetowhatzits are the very least of your problems. At least, I’ve always found that to be the case.

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31 Responses to “The Miserable Facts About Plastic Bottles”

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  7. Donald Ackley Says:

    I use 5 gallon plastic Army containers for hunting and camping and use Army canteens made with plstic and also use heavy plastic bottles for water. Is there any danger in using these, and I have heard from E-mails
    that the toxic in plstic will cause breast cancer in women. If this is true why
    isn’t there wornings on all plstic bottles?

    Thank you, Donald Ackley

  8. arewelostyet Says:

    Donald,

    It depends entirely on what kind of plastic they are. The only way for the consumer to tell would be to check if they have a recycle number (the little number inside the triangle, usually on or near the bottom of the container).

    A 1 or a 7 is bad. 2-6 is OK (as far as we know…)

    They haven’t been show to cause breast cancer in women. Polycarbonate containers (The #7 sort) has been shown to cause breast cancer in mice; which indicates possible danger, but its not the same as being a proven cause.

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  11. BRADEN Says:

    Definitely worth the read

  12. Plastic Bottles Says:

    I would agree that we do need to ditch some plastic bottles used for drinking water, I use a steel bottle myself. However, plastic bottles do serve some great purposes like storing essential oils for example. I think the best way to solve this problem is to have these bottles recycled and disposed of properly, and to stress the importance of reusing your bottles.

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  29. Aaron Hanock Says:

    To stop hurting the environment, I think people should buy things such as shopper bags to help out. First, shopper bags are longer lasting than harmful plastic bags. They can only carryso much weight. shopper bags on the other hand can carry several times more weight than plastic bags. This comes in real handy when you have to walk up stairs or walk ways with your groceries.

  30. arewelostyet Says:

    So, despite the fact that you are technically spam, I’ll note that I never backpack without a few plastic grocery bags of the sort you despise. They are lightweight, waterproof (in good condition) and stronger than you give them credit for (I can reliably haul 2 quarts of water in one). Does anyone need 40 more of them every time they go shopping? No. But that’s not what this blog is about. And it’s not about selling your damn shopping bags either.

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