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Controversial Product: Single-Use Plastic Water Bottles

Advisory groups using television and print ads have sparked more awareness for consumers of single-use plastic water bottles, which has finally begun to turn the tide toward better choices. But it’s reported that in 2006 Americans recycled only 23 percent of their plastic water bottles, landing 38 billion of them to wait out their 1000-year lifetimes in a landfill. Since introducing legislation in the cities of San Francisco and New York to outlaw this product, more public discussion and demand for industry reform will be needed elsewhere, including Madison, to limit the negative environmental impacts.


At Willy Street Co-op, we’ve been working to diminish our contribution to the plastic stream; however Owner demand for these products has historically been strong. Dean Kallas, our Merchandising Manager, began paring down the plastic bottled water selection over a year ago to a select group of recyclable choices. He then replaced some of the space created by those discontinued items with aluminum cans or glass bottles of carbonated water. Without the availability of canned or bottled “flat” water (non-carbonated), which is typically only bottled in plastic, manufacturers have yet to find a way to support consumer demand for an alternative. As a cooperative, having no option for Owners until a better product is produced then offered to us from distributors isn’t a reasonable option and Dean has been addressing this retail conundrum carefully. “It has been difficult,” Dean commented recently, “to strike a balance between our mission to be a sustainable/environmentally responsible business and the demands of our Owners for bottled water. We have cut back our offerings over the years and have limited [the companies] we buy bottled water from. The companies we work with have a strong commitment to limiting their environmental impact and to being carbon neutral.”


The debate over the safety of plastics continues as new research is released from the scientific community and federal health-related organizations. While most water bottles are made using PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), a fully recyclable substance, many consumers made a switch to reusable bottles which were manufactured with another plastic additive called Bisphenol-A or BPA. Also used to make baby bottles and in the lining for canned foods, BPA has never been definitively ruled out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a carcinogen in low doses. Concerned with the health of their citizens, Canadian officials have taken a precautionary approach and introduced legislation to ban BPA in baby bottles, which are routinely exposed to high heat.

In a recent report aired on National Public Radio about BPA, Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, described “the precautionary principle” which states that you act in the presence of concerning information. While consumers wait for further evidence to definitively confirm or deny BPA’s toxicity after being heated, Birnbaum, who says she finds the scientific findings on BPA “somewhat concerning” also stated that she’d stopped microwaving in plastic many years ago, not because she was convinced it would cause harm, but because it just wasn’t necessary.

The National Toxicology Program, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, does officially recommend avoiding the microwaving of plastic food containers or washing them in the dishwasher with harsh detergents as doing so repeatedly can deteriorate the plastic and release the BPA, which has been found to contribute to developmental, reproductive and carcinogenic effects.

On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration released this statement in 2008:

“At this time, FDA is not recommending that anyone discontinue using products that contain BPA while we continue our risk assessment process. However, concerned consumers should know that several alternatives to polycarbonate baby bottles exist, including glass baby bottles.”


Recycling in Madison, including plastic water bottles, is at an all-time high since the introduction of the City’s new automated collection system in 2007. Allowing residents here to commingle their recycling has assisted city collectors in reportedly doubling modest returns in 2008 when reselling our community’s waste. After planning for a 10 percent tonnage increase for the new system in place, the 2008 Automated Status Report listed an increase of 29 percent. Paper, cardboard, glass, and some plastics are now accepted in one single stream, then sorted and sold with Waste Management, Inc.

A significant reduction in the number of employee injury claims was also reported as residents and commercial recyclers were issued uniform bins that are necessary to allow each truck’s automated system to physically pick up the bin and dump it in the truck. And by eliminating the need for residents to purchase the former plastic recycling bags, the community is receiving a direct benefit with the new system.

That’s good news for Madison, but..?

The global picture of recycling and how municipalities are responding to the need to improve recycling is varied. Most Wisconsin communities are moving toward better systems or just starting collection systems, but there are still those smaller communities that still have no formal collection system.

Industry has been hard at work to find new ways to recycle the burgeoning recycled plastic supply. Clothing, laptops, playground equipment and more practical applications are a few of the methods used to reduce the amount of plastic in landfills.


Reverse Osmosis or other filtered water systems do alternately provide another option for those seeking better water. As compared to bottled water, which costs consumers roughly 1,000 times that of tap water, the price for filtered water can vary according to the type of filtration system used in either the home or from bulk water stations like the one in our Co-op. Reverse Osmosis (or “RO”) is a technology developed and used widely that draws from city tap water, passes it through a semi-permeable membrane, and then filters it through a series of steps to remove any additional sediments or minerals. As a last step in the procedure the water is exposed to ultraviolet light to limit any remaining microbes.

Ultimately, Owners act as the litmus for making buying/merchandising decisions at the Co-op. The core principles of our Co-op support a fundamental set of products that may never change, however we’ve also received occasional requests for and against products as they gain popularity or lose luster.

As we receive information about controversial products, we are committed to providing our Owners with the information they need to make their own choices about those products. And when our Owners stop supporting a product through their purchases, we’re ever ready to replace them with ones they will.

Willy Street Co-op features the following bottled water vendors and included are links to their webpages and ecological practices:

  • Iceland Springs—geothermal and hydroelectric energy produced, transportation related carbon emissions offset by Kolvidur tree planting—

  • Fiji—

  • Metromint flavored water—

  • Crystal Geyser—

  • Klarbrunn—Watertown, WI—

Recycling facts from

  • Bottled water costs between $1 and $4 per gallon, and 90 percent of the cost is in the bottle, lid and label.

  • It takes over 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture a year’s supply of bottled water. That’s enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars.

  • In 2007 we spent $16 billion on bottled water. That’s more than we spent on iPods or movie tickets.

  • Manufacturing the nearly 28 billion plastic bottles used to package water in the United States alone requires

17 million barrels of oil. Including the energy for hauling 1 billion bottles of water every two weeks from bottling plants to supermarkets or convenience stores for sale, sometimes covering hundreds of kilometers, and the energy needed for refrigeration, the U.S. bottled water industry consumes roughly 50 million barrels of oil per year.