Life Without Plastic


By Suzanne Forcese

It seems in our sophisticated culture that most of us understand the importance of adequate hydration. We ought to with the constant reminders. Beautiful people imbibing bottled water. The clever marketing techniques with images of pristine glaciers and crystal clear lakes make us want to belong to the health cult forever chasing perpetual youth in what appears to be a connection with nature. With our conveniently packaged and portable ‘life source’, available for purchase practically anywhere, we own a sense of belonging to the trend-seeking tribe.

In a conversation with Dr. Stephanie Cote whose research specializes in Barriers To Environmentally Desirable Behavior Change, WaterToday learned “Our research,(Cote, Wolfe ) suggests that bottled water is an especially appealing product because it is marketed in a way that allows drinking bottled water to help us manage our death anxiety.”

But do we have a death anxiety connected to our plastics mismanagement?

Even though, as environmentally conscious beings, we are also sophisticatedly aware of the plastics pollution crisis, we can assuage our guilt of our single use of a plastic bottle, by simply tossing it into the recycling bin. It helps us to feel virtuous.

But…do we really get it? Or has the push to make us responsible for our own hydration and subsequent personal health also created a monster which is controlling us through an intended learned behavioral pattern that has manifested into an addiction? Has this water convenience culture given us permission to unknowingly support an entire industry that is harming our environment and ironically, our health?

In the ongoing quest for answers to these questions, WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Jay Sinha, co-author of Life Without Plastic, and co-founder of the company by the same name. Both Sinha and business partner Chantal Plamondon started out with law degrees from McGill. Sinha’s expertise as a scientist with a background in biochemistry and ecotoxicology provided WT with answers that underscore the urgency to break the bottled water habit.

“It is a habit largely based on convenience,” Sinha told WT. We know we have to drink water and “the bottled water industry is allowing us to control our hydration in a personal way.” Cote adds, “Bottled water advertisements tell us that by drinking their product we can push our death farther into the future. Ads also reinforce our self-esteem and cultural world views. For example, many ads tell us that their product is pure and that we can protect or even enhance our health and youth by drinking it. Many also use depictions of beautiful pristine environments that are far from human contamination or death.”

Sinha also revealed that the bottled water industry lobbied against water fountains in public places, making our lives less convenient by their removal. There is actually an International Building Code requiring one fountain for every thousand seats in stadiums. The Rogers Centre in Toronto with its 49 thousand seats has only 12 fountains. But you can purchase a $6 bottle of water.

Sinha contends “the industry has targeted the millennials and trained them to become bottled water dependent. It’s clever, because then their children learn that behavior simply by role-modelling.” Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, offers a similar sentiment, “Today’s youth have grown up thinking that water comes in bottles, taps aren’t for drinking, and fountains equal filth.”

To understand why bottled water is not a wise choice for the environment and our health, Sinha led WT through the journey of a plastic bottle’s creation to the moment it touches our lips.

Actually, the plastics business is largely the petrochemical business. “The manufacture of plastics requires an enormous amount of energy. First, natural gas and petroleum have to be extracted from the earth – for natural gas mostly through fracking, which in itself has environmental and ethical issues. Because there is a glut of natural gas, production of plastic has been ramped up by the large plastic manufacturing companies, which are essentially the largest petroleum and chemical companies in the world. The petroleum or natural gas is then transported to a refinery and then to a plastics factory to create ‘nurdles’. The nurdles are tiny plastic beads with chemical additives. This step creates a very versatile product for easy transport to another factory for the production of specific plastic products. In the plastics factory more chemicals go into the mix such as flame retardants, anti-microbial agents, heavy metals, color – just to name a few of the thousands of possible different chemicals. It is important to note the additives are generally not disclosed by the industry and are certainly not evident on any labelling on the final product.”

Once made, water bottles then go to the water company where they are often filled with regular tap water that may have passed through water filtration or reverse osmosis processes. And finally the bottles are transported to a retailer. “All the steps have embedded energy beginning with the extraction of up to 650 million year old fossil fuel to the massive amounts of water used to the green house gases emitted in the multi-transportation process.” Then there is the question of disposal of this single use bottle to a recycling station which you can then pay your city or municipality to take away and ship to some distant location so that somebody can perhaps melt it down and recycle it into cheap lawn furniture. “When China closed the door to importing waste plastic in January 2018 the value of recycled plastic dropped drastically. With natural gas feedstocks so cheap, virgin plastic is often cheaper than the recycled.”

Plastic is piling up in Canada and around the world. Plastic is a material made to last forever, yet 33% of all plastics are used just once and thrown away. Plastic cannot bio-degrade, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Every bit of plastic that was ever created still exists. “Disposed plastic materials can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years, or longer,”Digregiorio, Barry E., Biobased Performance Bioplastic. As the plastic piles up and as time and environmental conditions break it down or as it is incinerated our air and water are contaminated with these tiny pieces of microplastics and nanoplastics. In landfills, toxic chemicals from the plastic piles can leach out into the groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers and our drinking water.

Further, chemicals in plastic which give them their rigidity or flexibility are oily poisons that stick to petroleum based objects like plastic debris. “Fish exposed to a mixture of polyethylene with chemical pollutants absorbed from the marine environment bio-accumulate these chemical pollutants and suffer liver toxicity and pathology,” Dr. Chelsea Rochman.

Sinha adds the situation is more serious than that. The entire food chain is consuming microplastics starting with plankton and phytoplankton. Why is it so serious? “Plankton and phytoplankton are now ingesting microplastics because it looks like their normal food.” Phytoplankton are agents for primary production, the creation of organic compounds from carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, a process that sustains the aquatic food web. Phytoplankton account for about half of all photosynthetic activity on Earth – having controlled the atmospheric CO2/O2 balance since the early Precambrian Eon. They supply 50-80% of the Oxygen on Earth. “If the plankton go, we have a serious problem.”

Then, there is our own health.

In a study reported by Kieran D. Cox, et al, (Environmental Science & Technology), “we estimate that annual microplastics consumption ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase 74,000 and 121,000 when inhalation is considered. Additionally, individuals who meet their recommended water intake through only bottled sources may be ingesting an additional 90, 000 microplastics annually, compared to 4,000 microplastics for those who consume only tap water. Given methodological and data limitations, these values are likely underestimated.”

And it gets worse. The two main types of plastics found in water bottles are PET#1 and BPA. BPA (bisphenol A) is often described as a hormone or endocrine disruptor because it mimics human hormones. “Peer –reviewed scientific studies have linked it to numerous health conditions including cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders to name a few.” PET (polyethylene terephthalate) may leach antimony. The longer water is left in the plastic bottle the greater the potential for release. As well, warm temperatures inside cars, garages, and enclosed storage areas increase the release of antimony into the liquid. So does sunlight and movement. (Think of water bottles jostling around in transportation.) Antimony is considered a possible carcinogen.

With all the evidence piling up, bottled water is still very much the norm and the market continues to implant the habit and pass it on to children. Bottled water is readily available at sports events, conferences, hotels, convenience stores. Sinha says “there are ways to get around it. Klean Kanteen, for example, is a company that can set up water dispensing stations for events and people can bring their own container.”

Sinha adds that bottled water does have a place in developing countries or emergency and disaster relief situations where water treatment infrastructure is weak or non-existent but where we have choice and control we need to break the habit by being creative and resourceful.

It is indeed a complex issue that requires change. “We (environmental communicators) cannot rely on giving people the facts and telling them about all the negative problems that can be fixed if people change their behavior. Information alone is not motivating for generating sustained desirable behavior change. We need to broaden our messages to speak to diverse individuals, embrace emotion, and positively promote our initiatives,” Cote told WT.

Sinha, with his vast scientific knowledge, creativity, and willingness to educate the benefits of life without plastic and behavioral training is definitely on that path.

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