Plastic bottles are a burden on the planet we can no longer afford them. Along with other food packaging, we need to urgently change the way we package and store our drinks and foodstuffs.
When it comes to water, viable alternatives seem scarce. Glass bottles, while more environmentally friendly in some aspects, come with their own set of challenges. Cartons are also far from perfect due to their composite mix of plastics and cards.
So, the plastic bottle will remain with us for now. This means recycling must remain a central component of the switch to a more circular society. However, to be effective we need to power this sustainably. As this article describes, solar energy could be the knight in shining armor.
How Big Is the Plastic Bottle Problem?
Let’s not beat about the bush, this is a massive problem with a multitude of nasty environmental side effects. Some facts published on Statista amply demonstrate the scale of the plastic bottle problem:
The figures looked at the worldwide volume of plastic bottle wastage from 2009 to 2019, and it does not make pleasant reading:
· Every hour 54.9 million plastic bottles are discarded.
· This means that every day a further 1.3 billion bottles are discarded
· Over the ten years that the survey covered a total of 4 trillion bottles were discarded
Now, we could argue that many of these will be recycled, but the figures here are not so rosy either. Recycling has always been something of a sticking plaster that has its own set of issues.
Plastic Bottles: The Recycling Problem
Let’s be clear, we are not knocking recycling, recycling has a large part to play in a more sustainable future. However, it is fair to say that recycling could do better. There are various problems with current methods and models.
The first thing to note is the low recycling figures. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only 29% of plastic bottles are recycled. Sadly, this is better than the figure for all plastics which the same report estimates to be 8.7%.
The other problem is the energy required to recycle bottles. While recycling takes considerably less energy than creating a plastic bottle, (estimates put it at an energy saving of about 75%) the used energy still constitutes a large offset against the benefits of recycling.
Solar Power: Recycling’s Knight In Shining Armor
The good news is that although the percentage of bottles reaching recycling plants is low, it is much higher than the average for all plastics. We need to make sure that more plastic bottles are recycled.
However, as increasing numbers of bottles are recycled, the relevance of the energy used in recycling becomes a bigger issue. We need to make the recycling process as green as possible and solar energy can play a large role in facilitating this.
This is already happening. Around the world, there are initiatives to power recycling plants using solar energy. These plants not only reduce their carbon footprint but also increase the net environmental benefit of recycling. By using solar panels to power the recycling process, we can further decrease the environmental impact of plastic bottles. This process will continue to improve as further solar power innovations emerge.
Aside from the obvious benefits of using clean renewable energy to power recycling plants, there are other benefits and opportunities of using solar energy to recycle.
· Cost Savings: As solar panel prices drop, recycling plants can expect reduced energy costs and a quicker return on investment.
· Continuous Operation: Advanced battery storage allows plants to harness excess solar energy, ensuring uninterrupted recycling processes even during low sunlight periods.
· Eco-Friendly Image: Adopting solar energy boosts a recycling plant's reputation, emphasizing its commitment to a sustainable future.
· Emerging Countries: Solar energy can help developing countries cut recycling energy costs.
Ideally, we need to move away from single-use plastic like plastic bottles. However, the shortage of viable alternatives and the basic human need for water means that this is one of the trickier “plastic issues” that society faces.
But while solar energy could be the answer to the recycling problem, other solutions are beginning to address the core of the problem – the plastic bottle itself.
Easing the Recycling Burden: Alternative Solutions to Plastic Bottles
Recycling is essential as a short-term solution to the plastic bottle problem. However, discarding 54.9 million plastic bottles an hour is simply unsustainable. Thankfully, moves are afoot that can begin to make a significant impact:
Here are a few of the innovative ways that are beginning to chip away at our plastic bottle usage:
· Boxed Water: Boxed water is emerging as a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic bottles. Boxed water has an environmental impact that is notably less than traditional plastic bottles.
· Reusable Bottles: Promoting the use of reusable bottles can drastically cut down the demand for single-use plastics. These bottles, typically made of stainless steel or glass, can last for years, minimizing waste.
· Community Water Refill Stations: Setting up refill stations in public areas can diminish the reliance on single-use bottles. These stations offer filtered water, ensuring both safety and quality for consumers.
While we wait for schemes like this to gather momentum, recycling plants must continue to take the strain. Solar energy can help to keep recycling as green as possible in the meantime.
Final Reflections: Solar Energy and the Plastic Bottle Problem
Ultimately, we must minimize our use of plastic bottles, but this isn’t going to happen overnight. In the meantime, solar energy can move in and take the strain. By making the recycling process as green as possible, we can reduce the massive carbon footprint associated with recycling plastic bottles.
By embracing solar-powered recycling and supporting alternative solutions, we can collectively work towards a future where our planet is no longer burdened by the weight of discarded plastic. Every step, no matter how small, brings us closer to a cleaner, greener tomorrow.