A Journey Begins The U.S. alone accounts for 5.35 billion pounds of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic a year, less than a third of which is recycled, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources, an industry group. The world's track record is even worse, with an average recovery rate of 10 percent.
Photographer: Paul Taylor
Bottling Plants The journey of a water bottle begins at the manufacturer. Thousands of bottles proceed along a filling line at Nestle Waters' Vittel bottling plant in northeastern France. The bottled water industry grew almost 9 percent last year as consumers switched from sugary beverages and chose bottled water over the faucet.
Photographer: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images
Petrochemical Abundance Producing plastic bottles consumes the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil a year in the U.S. alone, not including transportation. U.S. bottled water drinkers expanded their intake by 4 percent last year. In this time-lapse image, smoke pours from the stacks of Exxon's Mossmoran refinery in Cowdenbreath, Scotland. Hydrocarbons from North Sea gas fields are turned into liquid ethylene and then PET, the plastic used to make most beverage bottles.
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Art of Water Plastic bottles and other waste wash into the oceans, where they degrade and endanger marine life and ecosystems. Sometimes art mimics life. Pictured are two plastic fish, each made of thousands of discarded water bottles, rising from Botafogo beach in Rio de Janeiro during the United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June. The document endorsed at the conclusion of the meeting was widely panned as being similarly empty. The document "does not match the ambition and the challenges the world is facing," said European Union Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, in an interview at the summit's conclusion. "The thing which is missing is the part that would give a clear sense of how this should be done -- some concrete steps and guidelines."
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Recycled-Bottle Boat Recycling is getting cheaper. The packaging industry is hungry for raw material, and rising oil prices make it more cost effective in some countries to recycle PET than to manufacture new plastic.Still, most countries outside Europe and the U.S. don't have the ability to recycle, or in some places even collect, empty water bottles.Sometimes the utility of a used lightweight container is immediate. Pictured: A group of men paddle a boat made of plastic bottles, on Lake Amatitlan in Guatemala.
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Plastiki Sails the World The Plastiki is a 60-foot catamaran made from 12,500 plastic bottles. British environmentalist David de Rothschild arrived in Sydney harbor on June 26, 2010, after a 12,860-kilometer (8,000-mile) journey from San Francisco. The boat's name is a play on Kon-Tiki, the ship that Norwegian writer Thor Heyerdahl built and sailed from Peru to the Polynesian islands in 1947. Plastiki's journey took the ship through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of floating plastic waste twice the size of Texas, in the northern Pacific Ocean. Millions of indestructible polystyrene bottle caps circulate slowly, indefinitely, their sun-bleached reds, blues, greens and pinks the visible representation of human propensity for waste.
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Architecture Walls of recycled plastic bottles line this pavilion at a 2010 flower show in Taipei. Plastic bottles trap heat, which makes them useful for building inexpensive greenhouses. "Water would seem to be the ultimate environmentally friendly product," said Daniella Dimitrova Russo, founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. "It's a case of doing something good, packaged in something toxic."
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Banned Sales Seven-year-old Jackson Hal plays with plastic drink bottles that are lit from inside with colored lights. They make up a wall-sized display at the Light Up the Night exhibit on New Year's Eve 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Next January, the University of Vermont will become the largest university in the U.S. to ban sales of noncarbonated bottled water, bowing to a student-led initiative. Seventy-five water fountains will be fitted with taps for students to fill reusable water bottles. In September, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley upheld a similar prohibition for the entire town of Concord, Massachusetts, to take effect in 2013. The International Bottled Water Association has criticized bottled-water bans because they may make it easier to buy sugary drinks than H2O.
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Gardening In Brazil, about 56 percent of PET is recycled, mainly by people scavenging through dumps and selling their finds to middlemen, according to April Crow, Coca-Cola Corp.'s director of sustainable packaging. Coke is helping about 200 groups of scavengers turn subsistence into businesses, Crow said.Pictured: Bottles trap moisture and make useful mini-greenhouses that help small plants grow.
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Bottle Masonry Nigeria faces a housing shortage as millions of Nigerians can't afford standard building materials.A local nongovernmental organization called Development Association for Renewable Energy developed "the bottle house" to address the problem by putting to use some of the 3 million plastic water bottles Nigeria discards each day.Yahaya Musa, a 19-year-old mason, builds a home from earth-filled plastic bottles in the village of Sabongarin Yelwa, in northern Nigeria.
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Built to Last Plastic bottles can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. That's bad for landfills, but good for plastic-bottle homebuilders like Maria Ponce.Ponce, 76, stands inside her home made almost entirely from plastic bottles and bottle caps, in the village of El Borbollon, El Salvador, in 2007.Ponce built the house in 2003 with empty bottles. She was unable to afford traditional building materials.
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Plastic-Bottle Boom When an oil tanker sank off the coast of the Philippines in 2006, volunteers in the town of Arevalo used hay bales as floating barriers. The bales were kept buoyant by flour sacks filled with empty plastic bottles.Discarded plastic bottles aren't just a problem in developed nations. China overtook Mexico last year as the second-biggest consumer of bottled water, after the U.S., according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.
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Solar Lights Social entrepreneur Illac Diaz hopes to brighten a million Filipino poor with his "solar light bulbs" -- water-filled bottles embedded in corrugated roofing. The bottles refract sunlight, lighting the living space below.PET is easily recycled and shouldn't be left to pile up in dumps and on the ocean floor, says Paul Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented, a group promoting profitable recycling programs that's partially funded by Nestle.Pictured: Inmates and guards manufacture the "bulbs" in a Manila prison.
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Innovations in Recycling Analysts sort through ground-up plastic waste before conducting quality control tests at the Closed Loop Recycling plant in London.The plant is the U.K.'s first to make food-safe plastic from waste bottles. The facility recycles 35,000 metric tons of plastic each year, about 20 percent of the bottles collected in the U.K.The reuse saves about 52,500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, compared with using new materials.
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Water Wasteland Volunteers in orange life vests row through a sea of floating debris and plastic bottles while trying to clear a clog at Vacha dam near Krichim, Bulgaria.Empty bottles will eventually fill with water and sink. The polystyrene bottle caps will float for decades."Manufacturers say PET is green because it's 100 percent recyclable," says the Plastic Pollution Coalition's Russo. "But nobody's able to collect 100 percent of the plastic. The problem is that these bottles are meant to be thrown away."
Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty Images
Wildlife Impact On Kuray Atoll, Hawaii, the corpse of a baby Laysan albatross lies stuffed with bits of plastic, including cigarette lighters and bottle caps.Mother albatross birds fly thousands of miles across the Pacific, carrying what they think are tasty treats for their young. Instead, the colorful plastic scraps block the young birds' digestive tracks, killing them.
Photographer: David Liittschwager
Rising Consumption A hot summer in Yokohama, Japan, boosted sales of bottled drinks. The surge of waste left the Tsurumi Recycling Center choked with leftover cans and plastic that were beyond its capacity to recycle.Japan is one of the world's top recyclers. In Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries, mountains of 1.5-liter plastic bottles remain two years after they were used for earthquake relief."Recycling isn't an immediate priority -- our priorities are lifesaving ones: food, water and shelter," said Laura Fisher, a spokeswoman for World Vision, one of the aid groups that flew in relief water after the January 2010 earthquake.
Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Bottle Walls In Bolivia, a wall of sand-filled plastic bottles protects a farmer's field from wind and dust."We have to think about recycling as a commodity with a supply chain like the one that brought it to market," said Recycling Reinvented's Gardner.
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