November 6th, 2015
by Rehan Ahmed
Plastic water bottles are a common feature of urban life in the Middle East, being readily and cheaply available to all sections of society. In some instances, they are even provided free in public locations such as mosques, and this easy availability has seen their use – and subsequent misuse – increase greatly over time. People have come to regard plastic water bottles as a free resource, taking bottles, sipping from them, and leaving them in public places or throwing them away in rubbish bins with their contents only partly consumed.
These bottles are either left littering commercial and religious places and ultimately end up in municipal landfill sites. This is bad news because, in addition to the high carbon footprint of the plastic bottles themselves, they represent an enormous wastage of precious water resources.
Bottled water is widely used in the Middle East because it is considered to be safer and more convenient than tap water. People drink on average around two litres of water a day, which often means consuming four to six plastic bottles. In fact, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the world’s highest per capita consumption of bottled water, totalling as much as 285 litres per person per year, with a typical UAE resident using around 450 plastic water bottles annually.
What many people seem not to understand is that plastic is made from petroleum. 24 million gallons of oil are needed to produce a billion plastic bottles, which means that – given the average consumption rate and a population of 9.346 million (2013) – around 80 million gallons of oil are used in plastic bottle production in the UAE every year. That’s even taking into account a 20% recycling rate. Petroleum is, of course, much more expensive than water, and 90% of the cost of bottled water is due to the bottle itself.
While 20% plastic recycling may seem low by European standards, it is in fact indicative of the global picture. In many parts of the world, including throughout the Middle East, major quantities of plastics are still being disposed of in landfills, where they will – according to current predictions – remain for around 700 years as they ever so slowly degrade. Recycling one tonne of plastic saves at least a cubic metre of landfill space (depending on how well it is compacted), in addition to the primary petroleum resources saved.
The manufacture, transportation, distribution, and subsequent end of life collection and disposal associated with plastic water bottles generate huge amounts of pollution in terms of waste generation, harmful emissions to air, and global warming. The transportation of bottled water, from its source to stores, alone releases thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. What’s more, water isn’t only being wasted by people partially consuming the bottles. In addition to the millions of gallons of water used in the plastic-making process, for every gallon that goes into a plastic bottle two are consumed in a purification process.
The solutions to the environmental problems associated with plastic water bottles lie in minimising their use and working towards the recovery of the waste that does get created. The first step is to educate citizens so that once they open a water bottle they consume it completely in order to fully utilise the resource. Secondly, reuse needs to be encouraged, whether of the plastic bottles themselves, or of alternative refillable options such as flasks, thermoses, and more robust reusable water bottles. Also, if religious places, hotels, malls, restaurants, conference rooms and so forth were equipped with efficient water purification plants and water dispensers or fountains this could go a long way to reducing reliance on plastic water bottles.
Ultimately, this problem concerns consumption inefficiencies relating to both water and petroleum products. While awareness raising and waste minimisation efforts can help to reduce the burden on water and oil resources, without a thorough restructuring of the way the Middle East manages and thinks about water the plastic bottle is likely to remain a common sight for some time yet. Therefore, policy makers must approach the problem at all levels of the waste hierarchy, ensuring safe disposal and investing in material recovery at the same time as guiding citizens away from throw-away consumption.
We are grateful to EcoMENA for the opportunity to reproduce this article, a version of which first appeared here. EcoMENA is a website focused on raising awareness of renewable energy, sustainability, waste management, environment protection, energy efficiency and resource conservation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.