Plastic water bottles
Image Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis (CC BY 2.0)

“There’s no point in recycling,” goes the argument, “because it’s just a drop in the bucket.” How much can it really accomplish? Why should people spend energy on trivial things like recycling or reusable shopping bags when it feels like you are trying to push back the tide with your bare hands?

Just one drop in the bucket…

How big is a drop exactly? It’s not a formal unit of measure, but one estimate puts it at 1/20 of a millilitre of water. That’s tiny, to be sure. But what if everyone in the world, all 7.5 billion of us, gave one drop? How full would the bucket be if everyone on earth lined up in a single, snaking line and put one drop in a five-gallon bucket?

The answer is “overflowing.” And not just one bucket, but 19,812 of them. Or to put that in simpler terms, we would fill an average short course swimming pool like you might find in US high schools and colleges. One drop can feel like a hopelessly small amount when considered in isolation. But when that drop is multiplied by the earnest intent of billions of people, problems that once seemed insurmountable begin to dwindle down to manageable size.

Take recycling for instance. Tossing one plastic bottle into a recycling bin may feel as whimsically hopeless as a child trying to solve a family debt problem by foregoing a one-dollar allowance. But what would happen if everyone in the world recycled one single plastic beverage bottle? How many buckets would be filled by those billions of single drops?

In writing this piece, I fell down an infuriating rabbit hole of estimations upon estimations of the environmental impact that certain actions have. Turns out, it’s hard to say much of anything for certain about small-scale environmental impacts because there are so many variables at the individual level. This “impact obfuscation” makes it much too difficult for individuals to tally up their personal environmental impacts. For example, the data that I could find on emissions differences between new and recycled plastic deals with units of short tons of PET resin (who exactly knows what a short ton of PET resin looks like). The numbers that I am presenting here are my own estimations based on the estimations of others. I’ve been careful to source my starting numbers from scientific reports of reputable research bodies. It should also be noted that the numbers here are life cycle analyses which cover the emissions of the production, distribution, and disposal of the item; not just its creation.

So let’s talk about what happens when you recycle a single plastic bottle. Data from an EPA study on carbon emissions of plastic production states that one short ton of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin creates 2.25 metric tons of CO2 when created from virgin material. But if that resin is generated entirely from recycled material, the emissions drop 56% to 0.98 metric tons. With an average 20oz beverage bottle using 24.5 grams of resin to create, an entirely recycled bottle would avoid 33.9g of carbon dioxide emissions.

To put that in a more familiar context, that’s about the same as the CO2 emitted when you burn 3 teaspoons of gas. Not a lot, true, but that’s the drop. If you multiply out that drop by every person in the world, it would be the equivalent amount of gas that 54,000 U.S. passenger cars burn in a year.

You may be wondering why I bother to pretend like every person in the world could recycle a plastic water bottle when there are many people in the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water in any form. Let alone an air-conditioned convenience store in which to buy their choice of 10 different brands of bottled H2O. So, let’s drill down on just the United States for a minute. Speaking of bottled water specifically, it’s estimated that the US consumes about 50 billion (yes, billion, with a ‘B’) plastic disposable water bottles every year.

Using the same per bottle estimate above, if all 50 billion of those bottles were made from 100% recycled PET as opposed to virgin material we would avoid the amount of emissions created by… wait for it…

Three hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and twenty-five passenger cars. 360,425! To put that in perspective, that’s more cars then Lexus sold in the U.S. in 2016 (331,228 for those wanting the sales figure).

Now, to be fair, beverage manufacturers are getting better about including recycled material in their packaging. Not many are using 100% recycled material, but the tide is starting to turn in favor of using at least some.

But even being optimistic about recycling’s ability to limit environmental impact misses a greater point. There’s a reason that the saying goes Reduce, Reuse, and then Recycle. Recycling is great, but let’s move one word up that famous saying and focus on Reuse for a second. Averting the need for disposable items in the first place by using something sturdier has the ability to pay an environmental dividend. There’s typically a break-even point as the sturdier item requires more resources to produce up front. But when used even a few times, the sturdier object starts to win out.

Take coffee cups for instance. The Environmental Defense Fund partnered with Starbucks back in 2000 to better understand the benefits that reusable coffee mugs can have. For a glass coffee mug, they found that after 36 uses it was lighter on the environment than disposable paper cups. For ceramic, it was 70 uses.

Or take the much-touted reusable shopping bag. The UK government commissioned a study to figure out if reusable shopping bags had any real benefit over the cheap, single-use plastic bags you get for free. They found that reusable polypropylene bags, the kind you buy for $1 with a semi-rigid insert at the bottom, are better than your free plastic bag after only 11 uses.

So, is a drop in the bucket really worth it? When everyone in your neighborhood, nation, or world participates: yes. So, give your drop. Because when we all pitch in, we aren’t individuals trying vainly to fill a single bucket; we’re an army of progress overflowing swimming pools.

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