Day 35: Bottle
Be warned: this post is a rant.
As I walk the grass, sand, and concrete of the Pacific Coast, I’ve been picking up plastic bottles. I might’ve grabbed a few hundred by now (maybe 10 per day — some days on secluded beaches I only encounter one or two, some days on highways I find dozens). This is one of “The Rules” of my trek that I forgot to tell you about: beer cans, paper plates, bubble wrap, and even styrofoam I walk right by — but I try never to walk past a plastic bottle. Sure, it’s a little arbitrary. But I figure it’s better than doing nothing, and if I tried to pick up all the trash I passed, I’d still be making my way through San Francisco. Strewn here and there are the big 1.5 liter soda bottles, the Powerade bottles like I carry, the little vodka bottles, and a surprising number of milk jugs — some are sticky, most are wet, and one even had a couple of hypodermic needles shoved inside (bonus!). It can get a little awkward to carry a bunch of bottles, and I sometimes find myself walking with a couple under my arms and more wedged between each pair of knuckles. Happily, I can usually find a discarded plastic grocery bag on the roadside that makes them easier to carry.
And of course there are the water bottles. Always the plastic water bottles — and endless parade of them, like breadcrumbs through a forest — if the road disappeared, I think I could still follow the path laid down by Arrowhead, Dasani, Evian, and Aquafina. The water bottles are the ones that really kill me, because they’re so unnecessary. No wait — let me say it stronger: for the vast majority of Americans, there is no good reason to buy bottled water!
Most people drink bottled water out of some sort of perceived health benefit, believing it’s superior to tap water. This perception no doubt delights the water bottle companies (and was in no small part foisted by them), but it just ain’t true. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set high standards for the purity of our tap water, requiring regular water testing by certified laboratories. The quality of bottled water, on the other hand, is managed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a “packaged food”, and is subject to much less scrutiny. The FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose where the water came from, how it was treated, or what levels of contaminants it contains.
This is one reason why rumors continue to bubble up that a whole lot of our bottled water, claiming to be “spring-fed” or “artesian,” is actually just bottled tap water. It’d be good business for the bottle companies — after all, tap water is super cheap, and it automatically meets or exceeds the FDA standards for bottle purity — why go to the mountain springs when you can make money from the kitchen sink?
Of course, there are certain parts of the country where the tap water is legitimately unsafe, especially areas with landfills, toxic or radioactive waste dumps, acid mine drainage, or heavy fracking activity. These messes are almost always found in poor, minority-dominated areas — these are the ways in which environmental problems so often emerge as social justice problems as well! For the poor, living among the messes themselves is just the start; then they have to face the increased costs of dealing with the messes — like having to buy bottled water every day on a razor-thin budget. Yeah, let’s talk about the costs: per gallon, bottled water costs several hundred times as much as tap water. Apart from the areas where the rural poor are forced into paying for it, most of the country levies this extra tax on themselves — for no sound reason!
And of course, there’s the waste. My god, plastic bottles are piling up in great mountain ranges, casting translucent shadows over the land! New bottles bounce and clatter down the plastic hillsides — mass graves of discarded plastic, dead but not decaying. The bottles are thrown away by people like you and me, unknowing, uncaring, just away, away, away. Thrown away, to tumble down into the ocean, where they swirl and gather up with their dead brothers in great rafts, coming together in the ocean gyres like drops of mercury. Even as an oceanographer, it’s tough to separate fact from hearsay on this one — is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch really visible from space? Is it really the size of Texas?
In the ocean, the bottles slowly break apart — not biodegrade, not break down — but disintegrate into tiny pieces of the same stuff — the microplastics, that fill in all the tiny ocean crannys like a new breed of plankton. When I start my kayaking trip, I’ll be working with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), collecting water samples for a project to study microplastics: more on that in a post to come!
With all this waste, people have started to take notice, to mobilize against the avalanche of water bottles. And the bottle companies, sensing a change in the winds, have been quick to put on a good show of doing something about it. You can hardly find a water bottle today without some pretense of “saving the world” advertised on its label. There’s Dasani’s “plantbottle” (made from up to 30% plant material), and Alhambra’s “enviropac” (lightweight bottles — 50% less plastic!). But my personal favorite has got to be Arrowhead”s “Eco-Slim Cap” — 37% less plastic in the cap!
Eco-Slim Cap?? You’ve got to be kidding, right? If you’re not familiar with the term “greenwashing“, it means deceptive advertising of environmental friendliness — and this has got to be the most absurd example I’ve ever seen. Is the average American really so out-of-touch as to believe that by buying this disposable plastic bottle with its slim cap, they’re helping the environment? Isn’t it painfully, almost embarrassingly obvious that Arrowhead doesn’t give a damn how much plastic they spew into the environment, they’re just trying to use green labeling to hawk their product? As citizens with an ecological conscience, we should try to remember — even in the face of all this ridiculous advertising — that we wield our power as consumers to best effect not by buying more (purportedly) green shit, but by buying less shit, period.
OK… whew. Sorry. Rant over. Breathe, Zach, breathe. I should probably go jump in the ocean now, or something. As much as these plastic bottles and their marketing makes me roll my eyes sometimes, it makes me all the more excited to get back up to Alaska, where we can drink the rain.
Be well out there! I’m well into Oregon now — and I promise my next post will take a more positive tack 🙂 As a sign of my goodwill, here’s a sign that I passed on the road that made me chuckle. I pass so many amusing signs, I’m thinking of making it a regular feature of my posts.