Wednesday, October 5, 2022


The residents of Baltimore, New York City and Jackson, Mississippi, all have one thing in common: They’ve relied on bottled water throughout recent tap water emergencies. 

In Baltimore, it was E. coli. In New York, it was arsenic. And in Jackson, it’s been years of infrastructure failures. When these emergencies occur, families are grateful that bottled water is easily accessible. But if environmentalists have their way, this lifesaving water supply would be banned. 

Poorly educated environmentalists have encouraged bottled water bans in cities, airports and college campuses throughout the country. Yet a simple review of the data shows plastic is better for the environment than its alternatives. So why are these sustainability “experts” misleading the public (and students) on science? 

Consider Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. It’s the ninth oldest college in the U.S., predating the Constitution. 

The college recently announced that it would ban plastic water bottles from campus to help combat climate change. Jane Stewart, the college’s director of sustainability, said reducing emissions was why the school would ban bottled water.

“There are also a lot of emissions associated with creating plastic bottles in the first place, and a lot of energy associated with transporting them,” she told the media. 

But science shows the exact opposite! Because a plastic water bottle is unusually thin and lightweight even compared to a soda bottle, it generates fewer emissions to produce and transport when compared to aluminum or glass containers. Multiple studies have shown this, including a study from the Danish Environment Protection Agency and a more recent major analysis from McKinsey & Co. 

Producing aluminum cans emits twice as much carbon dioxide as plastic bottle production. In addition, aluminum is produced from bauxite ore. Bauxite harvesting is an incredibly harsh process that leaves communities — and the people who live in them — covered in red dust that kills vegetation and leaves residents with increased odds of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The pollution from bauxite mines has prompted riots in less developed countries.

Glass production requires immense amounts of energy. Research from the Imperial College London discovered that replacing every plastic bottle with glass would result in additional emissions equivalent to 22 new large coal-fired power plants. Snapple has switched from glass to plastic as part of the company’s effort to reduce emissions. 

Facts aside, what’s worse is that the university fully dismissed recycling science as a solution and claimed the market for recycled plastic is too unreliable to be viable. 

But again, research shows otherwise. There is a severe shortage of recycled PET plastic, the type of plastic used to make clear bottles. Many companies want to utilize recycled plastic, but there simply isn’t enough being provided to recycling centers. The university should follow the science (and the Environmental Protection Agency) and encourage recycling. 

When a so-called single-use plastic container is recycled, it becomes by definition multi-use. Recycled PET plastic has been used to construct buildings, pave roads and produce new bottles. By disparaging PET plastic as single-use, environmentalists are discouraging recycling and misleading the public into thinking all plastics were created equal and that recycling bottles is a waste. Again, the opposite is true. 

After plastic bottles are banned, the university has promised that students will get a free, brand-new stainless steel reusable bottle.

Stainless steel bottle production releases considerably more emissions than plastic bottles. Each of those new stainless steel bottles must be reused 500 times to break even with the environmental effects of plastic bottles. That’s assuming no student needs a replacement after losing their steel bottle before they use it 500 times. 

Ms. Stewart said the university bottle policy was aimed at students, adding, “I think it makes them feel good that the university is taking these sorts of small, common sense steps.”

It may make students feel good. But those “common sense” steps will create more carbon emissions. There is probably an English professor on campus who could quote the relevant wisdom of H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

And this is not the first time reactionary environmental policies have proved shortsighted. Los Angeles is struggling to deal with toxic solar panel waste. And the New York Times recently published a report exposing the fact that grocery store cotton tote bags must be reused thousands of times to break even with the carbon footprint of plastic bags. 

The plastic container has been made out to be an environmental boogie man when it’s actually the lowest-emission option. That’s the science. And the university setting usually suggests science crowds out popular opinion. Usually.

• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington.

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