Plastic Bottles: A Boon or a Bane?

Plastic Bottle
Residents in Indonesia purify their water by placing it in used water bottles and exposing them to the sun.

In Bintaro, South Jakarta, people are reusing plastic bottles to make clean water and save money, according to the Inter Press Service (IPS). Instead of sterilizing groundwater by boiling it over expensive kerosene-fueled flames, many residents now simply refill used water bottles and set them in the sun for several hours, a process that can kill bacteria that cause diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. “We don’t have to spend money anymore to have clean drinking water,” said Dewi, a 29 year-old mother of three, who has been using the practice for two months.

The non-governmental Emmanuel Foundation introduced the solar water disinfection process to many residents of the region, and distributes comic books with information on the method to school children. “We believe that children can influence their parents to treat water through solar disinfection,” said Mita Sirait, public health promoter of the Foundation.

To sterilize water, residents simply clean out transparent plastic water bottles, fill the containers to the brim with water, tighten the caps, and sit them in the sun for six hours. Placing bottles on a black cloth will help the water absorb heat faster. When it is not sunny, such as during Indonesia’s rainy season from November to March, water bottles must be left out for two days.

The wait time and unreliability of the weather are a deterrent to the method, as is the scarcity of used bottles in the region, reports the IPS. Since Bintaro residents are able to sell their used bottles as a valuable commodity, most families keep only what they absolutely need. Dewi, for example, uses just three plastic bottles, even though her family consumes four a day. “If we get really thirsty, we just drink groundwater directly,” she told IPS.

By using solar disinfection, Dewi has cut the costs of buying kerosene by more than half every month. And she is avoiding the air pollution caused by boiling water indoors, one of the leading causes of respiratory ailments in the developing world. “The smoke from burning kerosene or firewood causes eye irritation and lung problems,” said Zainal Nampira, head of the sub-division water sanitation directorate of Indonesia’s health ministry.

While bottled water has brought benefits to Bintaro and other poor communities, there is rising concern globally about the environmental effects of using the plastic containers. In many countries, the issue is not scarcity, but overabundance, creating a solid waste challenge. In the United States, some 2 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic used to make water and soda bottles, wind up in landfills every year. A mere 23.1 percent of PET was recycled nationwide in 2005.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

Note: This article was updated on July 27, 2007.