Week of 3/16/2008

Dear EarthTalk: I know there's a big debate now as to why we need bottled water at all, but is anyone addressing the incredible waste of plastic bottles by this industry?

—Bert B., Dubuque, Iowa

The plastic waste spawned by the recent astronomical growth in the bottled water business is significant. Environmentalists especially decry it because the water from our taps is usually as good as if not better quality than what's inside the bottle (and indeed sometimes bottled water is just tap water). Further, water bottles are not subject to the bottle bill laws that have kept billions of soda containers—made from the exact same petroleum-derived PET plastic packaging—out of our bursting landfills.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a Washington, DC-based non-profit committed to increasing the recycling of beverage containers of all kinds, sales of non-alcohol non-carbonated drinks—bottled water as well as energy and sports drinks—will likely surpass soda sales in the U.S. by 2010. More than seven times as much non-carbonated bottled water is sold annually in the U.S. than just a decade ago.

Water bottles are not subject to the bottle bill laws that have mandated return deposits and kept billions of plastic soda containers out of the waste stream. The Container Recycling Institute says that if bottled water were covered under just the 11 state bottle bills currently granting five- to 10-cent refunds on returned soda bottles, the wasting rate could drop threefold or more nationally.
© Cayusa, courtesy Flickr

The fact that more Americans are switching over from unhealthy soda to water is a positive health trend, but reliance on bottled rather than tap water means that the environment is taking a big hit. CRI's analysis shows that Americans have never recycled as much PET as in recent years. However, the sheer increase in bottled water sales means that even more of the material is going un-recycled than ever before. CRI says that if bottled water were covered under just the 11 state bottle bills currently granting five- to 10-cent refunds on returned soda bottles, the PET wasting rate could drop threefold or more nationally.

Besides being less wasteful, cutting back on the need to manufacture more plastic bottles from non-recycled (virgin) materials would also have a noticeable impact on America's carbon footprint. CRI estimates that some 18 million barrels of crude oil equivalent were consumed in 2005 to replace the two million tons of PET bottles that were wasted instead of recycled. Some other negative environmental impacts of making more and more PET from virgin petroleum sources include damage to wildlife and marine life, air and water pollution, and greater burdens on already stressed landfills and incinerators.

CRI and others are working to get policymakers at both state and federal levels to mandate increased recycling for water bottles. Oregon is the first state to update its bottle bill—the first in the nation when it was enacted back in 1971—to include a five-cent refund on PET water bottles beginning in January 2009.

And just this past November, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey introduced a bill on Capitol Hill calling for the creation of a federal bottle bill mandating a five-cent refund on all beverage containers—including water bottles. Entitled The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act, the bill is now with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for review, and may come up for a vote this year.

Environmentalists are not optimistic, however, that such a bill can pass, given how influential the beverage industry is in protecting its interests, which include keeping the base price of its products like bottled water as low as possible, regardless of the availability of an after-purchase refund.

CONTACTS: Container Recycling Institute; The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act


Dear EarthTalk: I've been hearing a lot about all the recycled materials being turned into handbags and purses. Are these bags actually fashionable?

—Mary-Beth Johnstone, Cos Cob, CT

Bags and purses have become inventive outlets for all kinds of recycled materials. Pictured here is a purse made from old license plates by Littlearth Productions.
© Littlearth Productions

Eco fashion, especially in the world of bags, purses and carriers, has proven to be an inventive outlet for all kinds of recycled materials. And yes, most of these bags—even those made from such unlikely materials as candy wrappers (by Ecoist) or carpets (CarpetBags)—not only look good, but would probably draw looks of admiration from fellow bag aficionados.

The Canadian website, eco-handbags.ca, carries a large assortment of creatively adapted materials turned to wearable art from green handbag companies. There are bags made from old books, sailboat sails, juice boxes, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, neckties, cigar boxes, skateboards, candy wrappers, chopsticks, soda pop tops and bicycle tire inner tubes. And these don't look like they've been knit together from a trash bin: They are impeccably sewn one-of-a-kind accessories. The juice box cooler bag, handmade by a cooperative in the Philippines for Bazura Bags, is a great all-purpose carry-all, while the sleek Roadster Handbag made of truck tire inner tubes by English Retreads makes for a stylish everyday purse.

Ava DeMarco and her husband Rob Brandegee one day looked at used license plates and saw handbags. The couple had launched their company, Littlearth Productions, in 1993 with a mission to match style with eco-consciousness. At first, license plates were used as ornaments on recycled rubber bags. Then they became the bags themselves, twisted into colorful cylindrical purses. Now Littlearth's recycled license plate handbags can be found in more than 1,000 retail outlets and in the clutches of everyone from Oprah to Chelsea Clinton. "Everything we make is one of a kind, because all license plates are unique," says DeMarco. In one year, Littlearth recycled more than 15 tons of rubber and 40,000 license plates.

And why not turn all that old tire rubber into something eminently wearable? The material is completely durable and effective for everything from men's messenger bags to women's clutches. "I've always been aware of the tire situation," says Robin Gilson, president and founder of Vulcana, a company that makes bags out of recycled car tires. "They collect water; they are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I thought: "Wouldn't it be great if you could melt car tires down and reshape them?""

After taking a leave of absence from her job as an attorney in 1995, Gilson tracked down a company that would take recycled car tire crumb and mix it with natural rubber to create a material suitable for stitching into bags. Vulcana launched its product line in 2001. The company takes 30 to 50 percent of its material from recycled car tires. The rest is virgin rubber, mostly from small, family-owned plantations in Malaysia. Some products are hemp-fused, which means the rubber is cured directly onto a hemp fabric.

For animal-lovers the new range of handbags has been especially welcome—whether they're made from tires, records, hemp or chopsticks, these bags are a great alternative to leather and an easy way to make a fashion statement.

CONTACTS: Bazura Bags; Eco Handbags; Ecoist; English Retreads; Littlearth Productions; Vulcana