In 10 Photos: What Is Happening To The Plastic Bottle You Just Trashed

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There’s a corner in my kitchen dedicated to plastic bottles. For as long as I can remember, we have been storing water at my house in this army of bottles and it was only very recently that my mother decided to get glass bottles instead.

This was, however, enough to drive home one point: plastic bottles are ubiquitous. Most beverages and soft drinks that we buy are served in plastic bottles.

But as we all know, these bottles aren’t the environment’s greatest friend. Just to put things in perspective, a plastic bottle takes 700 years to break down. And it’s estimated that the world uses more than 100 million plastic bottles daily, most of them only once!

Boy drinking water from plastic bottle
Plastic bottles are ubiquitous. Most beverages and soft drinks that we buy are served in plastic bottles. Source: Inkflo/ Pixabay

Have you ever wondered how these bottles are manufactured or what happens to them once you throw them away? From the time of its manufacture to the end of its journey, that ubiquitous plastic bottle spells doom for the environment. Which is why reducing dependence on it should be a part of the plan under sustainable development every country aspires to achieve under the Global Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Need more reason to act? Just follow the journey of a plastic bottle you use.

The assault on the environment starts from the manufacturing stage of these bottles. Oil plays a huge role in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and the plastic bottle industry uses 17 million barrels of oil every year to make plastics, a process that’s also detrimental to the environment.

Plastic Bottles manufactured at Coca Cola bottling plant
Empty plastic bottles move down a production line to be turned into Dasani bottled water at a Coco-Cola bottling plant. Source: George Frey/ Getty Images

After manufacturing, plastic bottles make their way across to stores and restaurants. Many single-use plastic bottles are sold by global soft drink firms – ranging from Coca-Cola to PepsiCo to Nestle, adding up to nearly two million tonnes.

So, what happens when a person buys a plastic bottle from a store? A person like me buys a bottle, keeps it around for all of ten minutes (in which time they have consumed the beverage) after which they dispose of the bottle.

Plastic bottle being segregated as recyclable waste
While disposing of plastic bottles, it might get recycled. It’s a good idea to segregate waste to ensure this happens. Source: Media Defence

Once the bottle is disposed, one of two things may happen. If you’re lucky, they may be recycled in special recycling plants:

Chinese man taking plastic bottles for recycling
A man rides riding a tricycle with plastic bottles to be recycled in Beijing, China. Source: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Israeli Plastic Recycling Plant
Israeli Plastic Recycling Plant. Source: David Silverman/Getty Images

But don’t get your hopes up, much of the plastic we throw away is not recycled. The US, for example, recycles only 25% of the plastic they produce. So, what happens to most of the bottles that we throw away? Most plastic bottles actually end up in garbage dumps like these:

Workers Sort Out Plastic Bottles At Chinese Disposal Site
Workers Sort Out Plastic Bottles At Chinese Disposal Site. Source: China Photos/Getty Images
Workers Sort Out Plastic Bottles At Chinese Disposal Site.
Israeli Plastic Recycling Plant. Source: David Silverman/Getty Images

Many may end up directly in rivers or in streams:

Rubbish Pollutes Manchester Ship Canal
Rubbish Pollutes Manchester Ship Canal. Source: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Rubbish Pollutes Manchester Ship Canal
Rubbish Pollutes Manchester Ship Canal. Source: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Rubbish Pollutes Manchester Ship Canal.
Rubbish Pollutes Manchester Ship Canal. Source: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images

That one bottle you picked up for a quick drink and threw away unthinkingly is now most likely making its way slowly down the rivers and oceans of the earth, slowly clogging the life out of them. More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating around in the world’s oceans currently, according to recent research!

In case you think this is hyperbole, take a look at the ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’: an “indeterminate” region of water which has extremely high plastic concentration and often leads to the poisoning of marine life-forms, many of which are often consumed by humans.

It is high time that this problem is addressed. As one of the signatories to the of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, India needs to do more. But how do we do this? How do we stop polluting our water bodies? If you consider that 40 percent of the world’s oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats, seems like there is a lot we can do.

The easiest thing that one can do is to become a responsible consumer. Which means that we can’t just stop at buying a plastic bottle and throwing it away and then forgetting about it. We must substantially reduce waste we generate through the three big R’s: reduction, recycling and reuse. When it comes to drinking water, this means using glass bottles instead of plastic ones and generally reducing dependence on plastics in everyday life.

We also need to push our government to adopt sustainable practices that ensure environmentally sound management of chemicals and wastes, with the end result of less waste and less pollution all around.

These practices will not only help significantly reduce marine pollution from land-based activities but also help curtail activities that threaten our everyday life too.

Since plastic was invented more than a century ago, we have become dependent on it for its convenience, affordability and function. This dependence is now choking our environment. But small steps can make a huge difference. And it’s time we started taking those steps.

It is our responsibility not only as a nation but as a citizen of this planet (of our only home as we know it) to protect it and to ensure that planet continues to be livable. Because we have only one home and one chance to protect it. Waiting is no longer a luxury that we have.

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