These two water bottles, perched with casual insouciance in my vegetable garden, may look similar but there are vast differences between them:
The bottle on the right, like all the bottles we've purchased and drank from and recycled or thrown away in our lives, is plastic, made from petroleum. One of the many issues with this is that plastics don't biodegrade in our environment. Formed of long-chain hydrocarbon molecules, plastics don't degrade into basic elements like carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. Rather, they break down into smaller and smaller bits until the smallest pieces still remain on land or in the sea- and these bits are still plastic. It doesn't go away.
The Wikipedia entry on plastic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic makes reference to the enormous quantities of plastic human garbage that ends up in ocean gyres. This is the article on these structures:
(There's one in the Gulf of Mexico as well.)
From that article:
"The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has one of the highest levels known of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column. As a result, it is one of several oceanic regions where researchers have studied the effects and impact of plastic photodegradation in the neustonic layer of water. Unlike debris, which biodegrades, the photodegraded plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining a polymer. This process continues down to the molecular level.
As the plastic flotsam photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces, it concentrates in the upper water column. As it disintegrates, the plastic ultimately becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic organisms which reside near the ocean's surface. Plastic waste thus enters the food chain through its concentration in the neuston."
Toxic chemicals from plastic degradation in seawater eventually make their way up the food chain to humans...
Such is the end result of the disposable side of the civilization that we've built.
The bottle on the left is made from plant materials. The company is called Green Planet Water and their website is here: http://www.greenplanetbottling.com/
Potential advantages of plant-based beverage bottles are:
-They biodegrade in the environment and are compostable.
-Plastic bottles can leach petrochemicals into the beverage; these bottles do not, being made from plants.
-Plant-based bottles are recyclable.
-Plastic bottles, at the end of their life cycle, release carbon into the environment. (It was sequestered underground for millions of years.) Plant-based bottles are carbon neutral. Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere and soil as they grow, and a bottle made of plants will put its carbon back into the ground if composted.
-"For every 72 bottles produced by Green Planet, one gallon of oil is saved from being used in beverage bottles and containers. They are recyclable, commercially compostable in 80 days and contain zero greenhouse gas." -from Green Planet's press sheet.
I'm sure there is a downside. But I also cannot imagine that it is anything close to the devastating effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It also occurs to me that plastic shopping bags would be the next target for this kind of innovation, as well as the myriad medical and dental disposables that are made of plastic. Plastic will probably always have a major role in manufacturing consumer and other goods, but disposable plastic is a concept that should be retired once and for all.
Note that for a few years now, there are starch-based packing peanuts that are an excellent substitute for styrofoam:
They're compostable, they dissolve in water, and they're even edible. Yes, I've tried.
As happens with all change, the mature and highly profitable plastics industry will be reactionary. No doubt even my post here will be attacked at some point. But the status quo exists for a perfectly good reason: to be torn down and destroyed at intervals when a better way is found to do the things that we humans rely upon in the running of our world.
I have a stock letter in my office that I mail or email to shippers who send us orders wrapped in styrofoam packing peanuts. In it I encourage them to change to starch based packing materials. They may not listen to just me so much- but imagine what would happen if every one of their customers wrote the same thing to them. They'd simply have to change...