Are plastic bottles bad for you? For what feels like forever, plastics have had a bad rap. It started as a whisper decades ago that has amplified to a shout today. If we play our cards right, it seems like some suspect plastics could eventually be a thing of the past. While scientists, startups, and society band together to find better solutions, here’s what we do (and don’t) know about today’s plastic water bottles and the effects of plastic water bottles on health.
Common Concerns With Single-Use Plastics:
Big brands, stateside towns, bustling airports, and entire countries (cheers, Canada) have already made pledges to decrease dangerous single-use plastics. All for various reasons that should come as no surprise:
- They strangle landfills.
- They pollute the ocean and can kill wildlife.
- They can release toxins into the air.
- They take centuries to decompose.
- Manufacturing burns fossil fuels and releases pollutants.
- And the list goes on...
To sum it up, several common plastics can threaten our health, ozone, air, oceans, energy, and more. Though that’s all heavy stuff — and we don’t want to discount it — the truth is there’s a slew of additional concerns surrounding the plastics typically used as water bottles.
What’s Up With Today’s Plastic Water Bottles?
Plastic water bottles are generally made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polycarbonate. PET is the common, single-use bottle you’ve been sipping from since you were a kid. It’s a lightweight, cheap, clear, and recyclable plastic that's been the preferred material for the big brands since the early 70s. Far from perfect, this plastic is abused and overused daily. Polycarbonate, on the other hand, is a harder and more rigid plastic used for larger, reusable containers like shaker bottles and 3- and 5-gallon jugs. It’s the plastic you hear linked to those three little letters that pack a punch of problems, BPA (more on that in a minute). But BPA isn’t the only concern with plastic bottles.
You’re Drinking Slivers of Plastic:
“Uncomfortable and scary.” Those are the words Phoebe Stapleton, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, used to describe the notion of microplastics accumulating in our bodies in a 2019 Time Magazine feature. A heavily referenced 2018 study discovered microplastics in 93% of water bottles tested from 11 big-time brands. So to say microplastics are common in bottled water is quite the understatement.
Consider microplastics a fancy term for small pieces of plastic. Then imagine those little chunks floating around your stomach. Yikes. That said, health concerns surrounding microplastics are what researchers describe as an “open question.” We don’t have a ton of definitive information, but it’s safe to assume that sipping on shreds of plastic isn’t ideal.
Plastic Bottles Contain Dangerous Compounds:
BPA, antimony, and phthalates might seem like a foreign language to you, but the health risks that can come with exposure to them are universal. BPA, found in polycarbonate bottles to help make them strong and shiny, has been linked to reproductive issues and breast cancer — among other things. Antimony, a compound used to make PET, is a suspected carcinogen that could have the potential to be toxic in high doses. And phthalates are endocrine disruptors that can mess with your hormones (though there’s plenty of debate around them). Not only does this trifecta of terrors surround plastic bottles, these chemicals can leach into your water under the right circumstances.
The Easy Ways Chemicals Leach Into Bottled Water:
Now that you know the key offenders in plastic, let’s reveal how they sneak into your water. We’ll start with a hot topic: Heat. Whether you’re letting plastic bottles ride shotgun in the car or catch some rays under the summer sun, it’s no wonder your water tastes a little funny after it warms up. But heat’s no laughing matter: It can break down plastic and cause it to leach chemicals like the ones we just mentioned right into your water. A warm bottle here or there isn’t likely to affect you, but you don’t want to make a habit of it. Of course, that also means both the dishwasher and scalding hot water aren’t the best options for cleaning plastic bottles, either.
But wait, there’s more: Overuse is another remarkably easy way to put yourself in danger. That 16.9 oz bottle that belongs in the recycle bin isn’t built to withstand the test of time nor constant refills. You might think you’re doing the world a favor by refilling and reusing — while also saving yourself a buck or two — but it’s a dangerous game that almost encourages leaching.
Plastic Bottles Are Breeding Grounds for Bacteria:
If you missed that last warning shot, here’s another one: You could be living on the edge if you’re treating run-of-the-mill plastic bottles like keepsakes. The flexible plastic and tiny spouts make it near-impossible to give these bottles a thorough wash. And we already told you the dishwasher and boiling water are off limits. Unable to get them squeaky clean, plastic bottles welcome bacteria to set up shop. So what’s it gonna be: Bacteria, chemicals, or both? No one’s a winner here.
BPA-Free Doesn’t Guarantee Safety:
You’ve seen enough BPA-free stickers by now to know BPA is bad. It’s even been banned from baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula packaging. But when something is removed, it must be replaced. Question is: Is the substitute better than the original? We can’t answer that when it comes to the preferred BPA alternative, Bisphenol-S. BPA and Bisphenol-S share similar properties. And the effects of Bisphenol-S on mice give us reason to wonder. However, there’s not enough science to date to drive a stake in the ground. For now, call us skeptical. Just like our friends at National Geographic.
Bottled Water Is Wasteful In So Many Ways:
Bottled water isn’t the be-all, end-all some think it is.
Making bottled water requires up to 2000 times more energy than making tap water.
In a world where energy is currency, that’s wildly concerning. Plus, it’s an open secret that plenty of bottled water is just refiltered tap water with a pricey label and attractive branding.
Expenses aside, bottled water is beyond wasteful. It can take up to 3 liters of water to produce just ½ -1 liter of bottled water. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for plastic bottles. When the tap is unusable, filters are unavailable, and water is a matter of life or death, the good outweighs the bad. But relying on plastic water bottles when other options are available isn’t good for anyone. And the fact that the water inside those bottles might just be tainted tap water adds a new layer of issues.
How to Protect Yourself:
Here’s a few quick tips to make the best of plastic water bottles or avoid them entirely:
- Don’t reuse single-use plastic bottles.
- Keep them cool and covered to evade brightness and heat.
- Don’t nuke plastics in the dishwasher or microwave.
- Rewash reusable plastics by hand.
- Get clean water from a filter instead of a bottle.
- Use glass or stainless steel bottles to prevent leaching.
What the Future Looks Like:
The world isn’t sitting on its hands as plastic-related problems pile up. 150,000+ people have joined us by investing in our advanced filtration systems both to get clean water they can count on, and to pass on plastic. But we aren’t the only ones making waves in the industry. Businesses are installing fountains to encourage people to use refillable bottles, rather than single-use plastics (but will that actually get them to ditch the plastic?). Others are getting creative by introducing alternative packaging including edible seaweed packaging (exciting stuff, but what about water quality?). And with pressure mounting, it’s a near-certainty new solutions will be uncovered as the world evolves. Our crystal ball reveals optimism as more and more people make the switch to powerful water filters so they don’t even feel the need to purchase plastic.