Last week, when I returned from a short, 2-nights-3-days Pondicherry holiday, it struck me we’d used 11 bottles of water! This, despite not consuming any bottled water in the restaurants we ate.

I wondered, aloud: “What happens to the plastic bottle after it’s been trashed into the dustbin?”

It gets picked-up, is sorted and then sent to a factory for recycling. Once re-cycled, it comes back as a new plastic bottle, with fresh and pure water.

Neat, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, no such thing happens. Only a fraction of these bottles actually get recycled. The rest simply go into landfills, adding to plastic waste.

Would you like to guess how many bottles end into the landfills?

In the year gone by – 2010 – over 150 crores plastic water bottles in India would have ended in landfills.  This number is for water bottles alone! When you add the soft drink bottles, and bottles used for packaging sundry material like shampoo, creams, etc., the numbers swell several times.

This isn’t good news at all! Because, these plastic bottles don’t decompose. Even after 1000 years.

Picture of pacific Ocean

Despite known dangers, usage of plastic bottles continues to grow exponentially. Reasons are obvious. They are lighter, unbreakable and almost pilfer proof, eventually making the products packed in them cheaper.

Yet, I believe we can completely eliminate plastic bottles, at least for packaging water and soft drinks. And bring about an extremely delightful impact to our environment.

How?

Let’s take soft drinks first.

Not long ago, most soft drink brands like Thums Up, Coke and Pepsi used to be packaged in glass bottles. (Incidentally, Beer is still packaged in glass bottles. So are whisky, rum and several brands of ketchups).  Why did these brands give up glass bottles and adopt plastic?

Because plastic bottles reduced cost, and increased their profitability. Simple!

The change has added a huge cost to society. Especially to a country like India, which can ill-afford to add more plastic to its overflowing garbage, its sub-standard and weak sewerage and drainage system, and its not-so-state-of-the-art garbage disposal ability.

The case of bottled water in a plastic bottle is even more amusing.

The goras (westerners) brought the habit to our shores, as they didn’t want to trust our water.  We saw them sip packaged water. We found it cool, and started copying them. Soon we had a flourishing industry. Bottled water in India has been the fastest growing industry after telecom. There are over 200 brands of bottled water, producing between them over 250 crore bottles of water a year.

Unfortunately, as bottled water industry in India is largely ‘cottage’ in nature, there is little regulation evident.  According to report from USA, roughly 40 percent of bottled water begins as tap water. Often, the only difference is added minerals that have no marked health benefit. The report, by the way, comments on bottled water industry in USA. With high pesticide levels found in even highly respected international brands like Coke and Pepsi, you can well imagine the state of our mineral water!

Wait, there is more bad news.

Producing these bottles emits CO2 and requires oil. For instance, Indian water bottle industry would have emitted an estimated 200,000 tonnes of CO2 and used more than 2.5 Lakh tonnes of oil. (This figure, incidentally, is equal to 8% of our crude oil import in 2010). By the way, even if these bottles were recycled, the same amount of fossil fuels would have been used. The only consolation from recycling them is that we don’t create more plastic.

The plastic bottles leach toxic chemical called Bisphenol. The chemical is known to cause cancer. Worse, the chemical production increases when these water bottles are exposed to hot air temperatures. I needn’t remind you of conditions under which these bottles travel all the way from the factories to the shops and restaurants – cocooned inside air-conditioned trucks and tempos, luxuriously journeying through our magnificent highways. No wonder, we happily pay as much as Rs.15 for a bottle of water, and then confidently gulp the water down!

You are bound to argue: “The news is certainly bad. But what’s the alternative?”

I agree. Drinking water available outside our home cannot be trusted. So we have no choice but to buy bottled water whenever we step out.

Since I returned from my holiday, I’ve been busy researching this long and hard, trying to figure alternatives. I have good news to report: there indeed are several alternatives.

1.       Soft drinks: If soft drinks were packaged in glass bottles or aluminum cans, we’ll see plastic pollution disappear. In fact, we’ll see pollution caused due to bottled water and soft drinks disappear. Because both aluminum cans and glass are completely recyclable. Glass, in fact, is 100% recyclable, and can be used over and over again. Aluminum is recyclable up to 79% of original weight. What’s even better, when either of these are recycled, we save humungous amount of energy. That’s because they consume far less energy than is required to produce a can or bottle made from fresh material.

What could be the pitfalls of making such a shift?

The price of soft drinks will go up marginally. Cost of producing an aluminum can is high in India – Rs.3-3.50. But in USA, it’s just 1 cent or 45 paise. So with increased volumes, the cost can be brought down substantially. Glass, on the other hand, costs more. But glass earns money when it is recycled – an empty Beer bottle fetches up to Rs.3 when sold to kabari wala.

I doubt if any of us will mind paying more to save ourselves from impending calamity.

2.       Plastic water bottle is of course a bigger problem to solve.  Yet, surprisingly, it can be solved far more easily than we think.

Here’s how.

Come to think of it, we rarely drink bottled water at home; we drink filtered water. The bottled water shows up when we step out, visiting restaurants, gardens, amusement parks, cinemas, markets or malls. Or when we are driving, or travelling in buses, by train or by air.

I believe, we’d happily avoid bottled water if we are served clean, filtered water wherever we go. Only condition is that water must be trustworthy. McDonalds and KFC sell soft drinks. But if you request them, they happily serve you clean drinking water in paper glasses.  So does Café Coffee Day. Even budget airlines selling bottled water in-flight are happy to serve you water in paper glasses if you don’t wish to buy bottled water.

My suggested solution (below) takes a cue from above.

a.       All of us must invest in a smart vacuum flask to keep in our cars and our bags. Fill the flask at home, and refill wherever we stop. Friends home, office, restaurants.  Water will stay cool for a long time, saving us the consumption of Besphenol emitted by plastic water bottles. This isn’t at all difficult to do! Remember, all school going children carry with them a water filled flask from home.  For a change, we can copy our children.

b.      Government can mandate that all restaurants invest in a certified water filtration system so a restaurant can serve clean, filtered drinking water to all its customers free of cost. The quality of water should be tested every month, and if found contaminated, the restaurant must face a hefty penalty. If all the restaurants in the country provide clean drinking water we can trust, we won’t need to buy bottled water. By authorizing several independent NGOs (like Center for Environment, founded and run by famous Sunita Narain) to test the quality of water served by restaurants, the government can give the legislation menacing, Dracula teeth.

Just three simple steps!

Two legislations: one banning use of plastic bottles for packaging water and soft drinks, and two, mandating all restaurants to serve clean, filtered drinking water free of cost.

And one small investment by us in a flask to carry water. (My sense is that this simple step can make bottled water companies unleash a multi-crore ad campaign to persuade us to consume bottled water! Evidence that our effort is working).

The steps together can save us an impending calamity.

India can also take a lead on this one; show the world what’s possible.

Last point: do you notice the similarities between plastic smiles and water packaged in plastic bottles? Both are harmful, but work in short run.