Category Archives: Environment

Plastics – Not a clear issue

So initially, I thought this post was just going to be about a cool new water bottle I saw in the Atlantic’s City Lab.  Having a bottle with a different form factor from the normal round bottles would potentially make it easier to carry around. But this reminded me again of the complicated issues concerning plastic water bottles and plastics in general.

Water bottles are the new black.  People don’t carry around sodas and unhealthy drinks, people are always carrying around water bottles, because apparently healthy hydration is cool now, right?  However, the downside or unintended consequences of healthy and hydrated living is an excess of plastic water bottles.  As the proud owner of many metal and reusable plastic water bottles I try to avoid this problem.


Recycling is very important and has saved millions tons of plastics from going to the landfills but recycling is and will never be 100% efficient.  Lots of organizations such as the Ban the Bottle Campaign and others are trying to limit our carbon footprint in the creation of plastic products.  There are some quite sombering facts related to water bottle use in the United States.

Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year1. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation.

The energy we waste using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes2.

Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38.3

Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. However, the U.S.’s recycling rate for plastic is only 23 percent, which means 38 billion water bottles – more than $1 billion worth of plastic – are wasted each year3.

The benefits of plastics are undeniable and have been highly touted by the plastic industry.  It is too easy to vilify the water companies for these problems, when some of the problems are not their fault.  It’s not their fault, that people don’t recycle their water bottles.  It’s not their fault that people just don’t filter their water.  No one is going to expect them to advertise Brita water filters so that they don’t sell more of their product.


Unintended Consequences – Good Ideas don’t always pan out

My favorite examples of unintended consequences is called the “Cobra Effect.”

So the “cobra effect” refers to a scheme in colonial India where the British governor, or whoever, the person in charge in Delhi, wanted to rid Delhi of cobras. Apparently in his opinion there were too many cobras in Delhi. So he had the bounty placed on cobras. And he expected this would solve the problem. But the population in Delhi, at least some of it, responded by farming cobras. And all of a sudden the administration was getting too many cobra skins. And they decided the scheme wasn’t as smart as initially it appeared and they rescinded the scheme. But by then the cobra farmers had this little population of cobras to deal with. And what do you do if there’s no market? You just release them. And so this significantly, by a few orders of magnitude, worsened the cobra menace in Delhi.

I strongly believe that technology will help us get out our messes with the environment.  Nature’s great blog just recently profiled 10 Unexpected Impacts of Climate Change.  My biggest fear is that we unleash the next “cobra effect” by looking for the fast and easy solution.

Fighting climate change does not happen overnight.  It requires big societal changes that happen little by little.  Great change happens incrementally.  The environmental movement started with recycling.  Then it led to the hybrid cars.  What happens next is up to you.