Where’s the impact of a reusuable bottle?

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In this series, we’ve been investigating the environmental and social impacts of various consumer products. Inspired by CAT Education resource Where’s the Impact? we’ve been attempting to unpick the tangled web of relations responsible for what buy.

We’ve so far investigated an Easter egg, a book, a cotton t-shirt and pads and tampons. Last time, we looked at the impact of a home-baked cake, concluding that baking a cake yourself was likely to be more ethical than buying a store bought one, as it’d be possible to avoid un-fairly traded sugar, mono-crop wheat, or products from intensive animal farming.

This week, we’re going to delve into the world of reusable bottles. Most of us are aware of the impact that disposable plastic water bottles have on the environment – and reusing the same bottle, rather than continually buying more bottled water, is a pretty good solution. However, when that bottle’s made from aluminium, with a plastic lid, there are still ethical issues to consider.

As ever, we welcome your comments – help us tell the story by posting below, or make suggestions as to what we could cover in the future.

We looked at aluminium production in an earlier post examining the impact of an Easter egg, highlighting in particular the long distances frequently traveled by the raw material – bauxite ore – before processing. Freighting hefty resources around the world takes a considerable carbon toll, and is symptomatic of the globalised way we’ve become accustomed to producing goods.

In this post, however, I want to focus on a different aspect of aluminium production. As well as being sourced a long way away from the site it’s processed, aluminium affects areas of high biodiversity, as bauxite mines can often be found in these unique habitats.

One such area of high biodiversity is the Amazon rainforest, currently affected by a range of different damaging processes. In the case of aluminium, it’s open cast mining. Open cast mining is not at all euphemistic – it’s an open pit, a giant, gaping, open pit. Kendra Pierre-Louis, in her book Greenwashed, describes the process: “the terrain is artfully moulded, albeit by a deranged landscape architect seeking to evoke a Mad Max-style dystopia.”

Bauxite mines of this persuasion tend to spread indefinitely, until the dirt expelled from the pit becomes problematic. Meanwhile, processing aluminium requires huge amounts of electricity, which Aloca plan to source in Brazil by flooding 150 square miles to create a huge hydroelectric dam, displacing 20,00 people in the process, and shrinking one of the planet’s most precious natural resources.

Even if you’re buying a reusable aluminium bottle to reduce your reliance on disposable plastic bottles, it’s likely you’ll still be buying a bottle with plastic content in the lid. Plastic’s lack of environmental credentials lies partly in its manufacture, which is reliant on various chemicals dangerous to human health, and partly in its longevity.

Strangely for a substance so associated with disposability and impermanence, plastic sticks around for a long, long time. It loiters in landfills, clogs waterways, and once entering the ocean, migrates to join ranks with other bits of plastic in one of five plastic ‘islands’ in the ocean, each the size of Texas. It degrades, and gets eaten, pervading almost every ecosystem on Earth. But it doesn’t break down.

What then, do we do with it? Recycling plastic can be an energy-intense process. Recycling it more imaginatively – I’m thinking knitting bags from plastic bags, bin-liner wearable art – is also an option, though it’s probably possible to reach saturation point with plastic-based recycled art fairly quickly. Sadly, plastic products are emblematic of our disposable consumer culture; it’s a great resource, but perhaps best for where necessity demands it, like medical supplies, rather than the various less-than-vital ends we’ve channeled it into.

Don’t get me wrong: reusable bottles are good. Reusable things in general are good, as are mendable things, fixable things, things built without built-in obsolescence or the capacity to self-destruct. However, there’s an interesting irony in the case of an aluminium reusable water bottle – they’re part of a range of products aimed at making our lives greener, encouraging us to believe that we can shop ourselves out of ecological crisis.

Aluminium, unlike plastic, can be recycled with relative ease. Recycling aluminium saves up to 95% of the amount of energy needed to transform bauxite ore into aluminium, and with over 4 million cans produced annually in the UK alone, it’s fair to say that we’ve got enough of the stuff in circulation to fulfill our aluminium needs. However, aluminium bottles are made from virgin aluminium. They’re recyclable, which is better than not being recyclable, but the process of making them is still reliant on open-caste mining, destroying areas of high biodiversity, and robbing indigenous peoples of their land.

If we bought one and thus fulfilled our water-vessel needs, that’d be fine and dandy – but consumer culture doesn’t work that way. Despite reusable bottles being sold to us as eco-options, our consumption of bottled water hasn’t significantly decreased, if at all. And they’re still peddled as part of an acquisitive culture which needs us to buy more, and more (and perhaps more).

Fundamentally, despite claims of ‘greenness’, all products have an impact. The question remains as to which impacts are worth it, and which aren’t.