Hidden Hazards: The Chemical Footprint of a Plastic Bottle

Worldwide, the beverage industry buys more than 500 billion plastic bottles every year to package its products. This insatiable demand for plastic bottles drives the production of a common plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET. Plastic bottles consume a quarter of all PET plastic production worldwide. A first-ever study, Hidden Hazards: The Chemical Footprint of a Plastic Bottle, reveals the potential threats to human health, environmental justice, and climate change created by the chemical manufacturing and plastics production processes required to turn crude oil and fossil gas into plastic bottles, as well as from consumption of plastic-bottled beverages and final disposal of the bottles. All along the plastic bottle supply chain, these burdens fall heaviest on communities of color and low-income communities. The report urges Coca-Cola and other beverage companies to take immediate action to require suppliers to replace antimony and cobalt in plastic bottles with safer alternatives and to achieve zero discharge of cancer-causing chemicals to the air and water along its supply chain. By 2030, these companies should replace 50% of plastic bottles with reusable and refillable container systems and end the use of virgin fossil-based PET plastic by 2040 to help solve the climate crisis and minimize toxic burdens.

Access the report webpage: here.

Read the executive summary: here.

Read the press release: here.

Research shows antimony (a toxic heavy metal) can be leached from water bottles made of PET plastics. The rate of leaching is low at a storage temperature of 25°C. However, at temperatures of 50°C and above, antimony release can occur very rapidly. It is likely to approach these temperatures in the Middle East generally and in Kuwait specifically. Therefore, exposure to high temperatures in short period of time during packaging, transportation or storage could produce antimony concentrations that exceed the USEPA MCL of 6 ppb.

When comparing water of the same spring that is packed in glass or plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), scientists find estrogenic activity is three times higher in water from plastic bottles. These data support the hypothesis that PET packaging materials are a source of estrogen-like compounds. Furthermore, the findings presented here conform to previous studies and indicate that the contamination of bottled water with endocrine disruptors is a transnational phenomenon.

Scientists test for microplastic contamination in 11 globally sourced brands of bottled water, purchased in 19 locations in nine countries. Of 259 bottles, 93% show clear signs of microplastic contamination. Fragments of microplastic were the most common type detected. A small number of particles showed chemical presence of industrial lubricant chemicals. Data suggests the contamination is at least partially coming from the packaging and/or the bottling process itself. The researchers found roughly twice as many plastic particles within bottled water as compared to tap water on average.

The report examines facts and perceptions about bottled water in the global context. It analyses the geography, structure, trends, and drivers of the global bottled water market. It examines the existing knowledge on the quality of bottled water, its impacts on water resources, and its role in plastic pollution. It raises the question of the bottled water industry’s contribution to the sustainable development goal on universal access to safe drinking water. The analysis considered only those types of bottled water that have little or no difference in taste from the tap water provided by regular municipal water supply. It is shown that bottled water is widely consumed in the both Global North and South although prices can be orders of magnitude higher than tap water….

The report argues that while progress toward universal access to safe drinking water for all is significantly off-track, the expansion of bottled water markets slows this progress down, distracting attention and resources from accelerated public water supply systems development. Estimates suggest that less than half of what the world pays for bottled water annually would be sufficient to ensure clean tap water access for hundreds of millions of people without it – for years. There are recent high-level initiatives that aim to scale up financing for the Sustainable Development  Goals, including water-related ones. Such initiatives are an opportunity for the bottled water sector to become an active player in this process and help accelerate the progress toward sustainable water supply, particularly in the Global South.

Stanford pediatrician and arbovirologist Desiree LaBeaud and her colleagues created a community-led mosquito research project in Kenya, where mosquito-borne diseases are common. They found that plastic pollution, including containers and bottles, can serve as major breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. In an effort to reduce disease, LaBeaud and colleagues have launched a nonprofit to clean up plastic pollution to prevent continued spread of mosquito-borne diseases.