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This is part seven of an eight-article series by We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.
Two weeks ago, in Part 5, we wrote about how one-fifth of Evanstonians we surveyed through the We are Water Evanston community research project did not trust Evanston’s tap water quality. This distrust leads many to primarily purchase bottled water for drinking, with the burden disproportionately felt by people of color and homeless residents.
In this article, we dive deeper into the environmental consequences of the plastic bottled water industry and its relevance to Evanston. We share our findings about Evanstonians’ perceptions about bottled water and plastic pollution, and why this is a systemic issue rather than one of just individual actions. We also describe how we can work toward making a difference in the Great Lakes region.
What’s wrong with plastic water bottles?
Plastic is everywhere. Over the past 50 years, plastic products and packaging have become a convenient mainstay of modern life around the world. Look around your immediate surroundings, and it will be impossible to not find at least a few products made of plastic.
Water has been bottled in some form for centuries, but it was the advent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles in 1968 as a convenient, lightweight and single-use option that fueled the crisis we find ourselves in today. We care most about single-use plastics because they break down into smaller pieces called microplastics that remain in the environment for hundreds of years.
While we are still discovering the health impacts of plastics, the industry as a whole poses a threat to our health at various stages of the plastics life cycle – from air pollution that comes from plastic production to toxic additives that get leached from microplastics. The raw materials for plastic are fossil fuels: crude oil and natural gas. It’s estimated that just in the United States, the plastics industry has contributed 232 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, which a recent report equates to average emissions from 116 coal-fired power plants. Reducing plastic production is an urgent climate change issue.
Plastic production also uses a lot of water; one estimate suggests that it takes 1.4 gallons of water to produce just one single-use (16.9 oz) PET water bottle. Furthermore, bottled water has an overall ecosystem impact that’s 1,400 times greater than tap water.
Is bottled water better than tap water?
Today, one million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world. In fact, Americans buy more bottled water than any other beverage. Our survey of nearly 800 Evanstonians revealed that 7% regularly buy bottled water or five-gallon containers from the store for drinking.
As we detailed in our previous article, Evanston residents listed various reasons for drinking bottled water instead of tap water, including a perception that it is safer. However, bottled water is often just refiltered tap water, and studies have not necessarily found a difference in the quality between the two. The National Resources Defense Council suggests that in some communities in the U.S., people may spend “10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically do for tap” water. Even those who use water filters are using hard-to-recycle plastic materials that need to be replaced every few months.
But we recycle – isn’t that good enough?
All this plastic we have produced in the last 50 years has to go somewhere. Many Evanstonians we spoke to recognize the challenge at hand. One environmentally conscious respondent said they try to avoid purchasing bottled water whenever possible: “Occasionally somebody will hand me a bottle of water. OK, fine. I’ll drink it. And then I have to find a recycling bin.”
The reality is that although PET bottles are made of one of the plastics easiest to recycle, only about 30% end up in recycling facilities. Furthermore, generous estimates suggest that overall, only 9% of recyclable plastic ever gets recycled.
Plastic waste that doesn’t end up in sanitary landfills (where it can take 450 years to degrade), ultimately makes its way into our rivers, lakes and oceans. In fact, plastic bottles and bottle caps are some of the most frequently collected items in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual beach cleanups.
Why should Evanstonians care about plastic pollution?
As we wrote about in our first two articles, Evanstonians from all walks of life care deeply about their beaches and Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are estimated to endure 22 million pounds of plastic waste each year, half of which goes into Lake Michigan.
As with larger beach cleanups, in 2019 most items that Adopt-a-Beach volunteers collected along the Great Lakes were single-use plastic items, half of which are microplastics, which can end up in our drinking water.
Buying plastic bottles of water to avoid tap water can create a vicious cycle of further contaminating our drinking water supply and straining our water treatment facilities.
In our conversations with residents about their perceptions of tap and bottled water safety, environmental concerns, particularly plastic pollution, emerged as the third most cited reason for drinking tap water out of 385 responses.
Even for those who use bottled water regularly, there was by no means a sense of environmental apathy. Several respondents described their inner conflict between not wanting to contribute to plastic pollution while also being fearful of the tap water quality.
For example, when we asked one civic leader whether COVID-19 had changed their relationship with water, they said, “I’m really more cognizant of where my water is coming from. I’m getting it out of the bottle, but at the same time these bottles are causing pollution. So how do I wean myself away from bottled water to filtered water? I think our service here in Evanston is safe. … But I’m being cautious about how, as life-giving as water can be, it can also hold every pathogen that can kill you.”
Solving plastic pollution requires more than individual actions
Much of this discussion still centers around individual actions – such as whether people should buy so much plastic-bottled water, or whether people are properly recycling PET bottles – rather than the bottled water and plastics industry itself.
A recent Frontline investigation found that oil and gas companies have been promoting recycling as the solution, while internal records show officials knew that it was unlikely to ever be economically viable.
Therefore, while individual environmental actions are important, they can divert attention from the bigger systemic challenges at hand. Bottled water companies are notorious for depleting local water sources while providing little compensation to vulnerable communities, leading to reduced water access and environmental disruptions. One resident we interviewed recognized this, saying that “the bottled water industry isn’t safe for [the] places where it steals water [from communities].” Another resident was “adamantly opposed to bottled water for environmental issues. [Large bottled water operations] just got contracts in Michigan to extract tons of water for their bottles. And that to me is obscene.”
The influence of this industry is not lost on Evanstonians. One Evanston faith leader we spoke to calls their church a “water bottle church,” telling us, “I think we’ve been trained to do that. We’re always concerned about plastic, no question about it. You know, we do the recycling bit with that. But right now it seems like that’s the way to go.”
When asked why, this faith leader told us, “I think we’ve been brainwashed. I mean, you know, we see it everywhere. So I think that marketing and PR … these companies with these water bottles, they have pushed that onto the American psyche. And we think that it’s OK, we think that it’s affordable because you can go in the store and grab a bottle of water for $1.”
What can we do about it
Plastic bottles serve a need; they are convenient when in a pinch, they are essential during water emergencies and natural disasters, and for those facing housing insecurity, they are sometimes the only option for safe drinking water. These are not the primary contributors to the larger plastic pollution problem.
Addressing the larger challenge is going to require a multipronged approach. The upstream factors we described require advocacy at a higher level to challenge marketing and green-washing efforts of bottled water companies, lobbyists and fossil fuel companies.
However, this can start with grassroots organizing here in Evanston.
At the individual and household level, we can conduct our own plastic audits to reduce how much single-use plastic we consume and consider plastic-free water filters. We can also ensure that we are recycling our PET bottles and other plastic waste per city guidelines.
At a community level, environmentalists need to disrupt the all-too-often used narrative that portrays bottled water users as an apathetic monolith. By understanding the nuanced and grounded reasons that drive people’s behavior, we can better address the root causes of their concerns. Similar to the ongoing debate about vaccine hesitancy, a shame-inducing strategy in Evanston for reducing plastic waste is unlikely to work because it does not address most reasons people cite for using bottled water: concerns of tap water quality and trust in government.
The desire for making eco-conscious individual actions is evident with those we spoke to in our project, if only actions are taken to make residents feel safe in those decisions. One survey respondent told us, “It’s hard to believe our elected representatives care about our water safety.” To address trust, we need systemic changes and reparations that promote equity at all levels. Creating safe spaces for discussion and action-based responses from the city government may be effective approaches to begin to decrease bottled water consumption.
Nevertheless, there is still a need for increasing awareness about water quality. We have previously suggested actions like a virtual tour of the city’s award-winning water treatment plant, easily accessible information on water quality and lead pipe replacement, and the importance of trusted, empathetic and accessible information about water sources.
As combating climate change requires community movements and not just individual actions, exclusivity has no place in successful environmental movements. Joining local justice-oriented environmental groups like Citizens’ Greener Evanston or global ones like Food and Water Watch and Break Free from Plastic are some ways to help promote collective action for environmental protection purposes. Residents can also participate in public-facing events related to the Climate Action Resilience Plan and help the city achieve its zero-waste goal by 2050.
We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed Collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. This article is the seventh of an eight-part series where we share key findings and action items related to water in Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).