Reusable Water Bottle | United States (1947)


By Savannah Kaul


Reusable water bottles are thought to be a step in the right direction when thinking of recycling and the effect of plastic on the environment. They reduce the amount of disposable water bottles being used and ultimately ending up in landfills, but they are also contributing to the Anthropocene. When I open the cabinet above the fridge at my house, it is overflowing with unnecessary plastic and metal water bottles from organizations, events, and companies trying to advertise. That does not even take account for the numerous ones I have misplaced from leaving them in classrooms or forgot in friends’ vehicles. They are not easily recycled and require much more energy to produce than regular plastic water bottles and when consumers are done with them, they still end up in a landfill. Also, in addition to using these reusable water bottles, the majority of people will still keep a case of disposable water bottles at their home or buy one when they are at an event, as this is most convenient. These reusable water bottles help represent the Anthropocene because they express the minimal amount of effort humans are willing to put forward to help save the environment and repair the mistakes we have caused. They are a low effort and very ineffective way of attempting to solve the issues, not to mention creating new complications on their mission.

Portable water bottles like glass jars and canteens have been around since the 1800s, as farmers and soldiers used them to cool down and stay hydrated. The transition from these cleaner, greener forms of portable bottles to today’s popular reusable water bottles first was initiated after World War II during the plastic boom. As the conflict ended in 1945, resources and raw materials became drastically more accessible as well as advancements with new manufacturing techniques and accessibility. They first hit the shelves in 1947 but were too expensive for most consumers until polyethylene was developed in the early 1960s. This material was affordable, lightweight, and easy to shape. According to a New York Times article from 1958, “W. R. Grace Co. had developed flame-retardant compounds of high-density polyethylene in a variety of colors, opening the way to improved products never before possible with polyethylene”. Although it is a convenient material to use, polyethylene is not biodegradable, making it an unsuitable material to be disposed of through landfill sites, even though they are often disposed of here instead of recycled. Biodegradable materials are not the same as recyclable materials. Being biodegradable means that it will break down or be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms before reaching the ocean, but cannot be reused to create new products. According to Alex Nash, founder of sustainable Yuhme water bottles, polyethylene plastic is produced from oil, and plastic production as a whole stands at over 300m tons per year and requires 4% of the total oil production annually. It has a CO2 output of +2.4tons/per ton of product produced. Nash brings up the problematic environmental effects that go into plastic production, but as his company is built on the idea of sustainability, he does not focus on the energy that goes into recycling this material as it is a much more durable plastic than regular disposable water bottles. This image shows a reusable water bottle serving its main purpose of holding water as it sits on a concrete sidewalk in 2015. Looking at this clear pink water bottle, you can see the amount of plastic used to make bottles like these is greater.

Stainless steel water bottles have also made their way into question, even though they are made from sustainable, recyclable material. They have their own environmental effects that are unique and distinctively different from the effects of plastic and polyethylene. “Steel production has a number of impacts on the environment, including air emissions (CO, SOx, NOx, PM2), wastewater contaminants, hazardous wastes, and solid wastes. The major environmental impacts from integrated steel mills are from coking and iron-making.” This material leaves a large carbon dioxide footprint when considering the mining that is required for its production. Mining is also an extractive process that exploits land and resources. It is what can be extracted from nature that holds the value in production, instead of nature itself, contributing to Jason Moore’s capitalocene.

In addition to the environmental contributions to the Anthropocene, the companies’motives and intentions need to be considered when examining the impacts of reusable water bottles. Companies are selling them to make profit and to advertise their brand more so than they are trying to help the environment. This contributes to the capitalocene and cheapens natures value, as well as the water bottles, value to helping the environment. According to David F.Ruccio, Professor in the Department of Economics and Policy Studies at the University of Notre Dame and editor of the journal Rethinking Marxism, Capitalism presumes that the products of labor have become commodities, in the sense that the goods and services that human beings produce have both a use value (they satisfy some social need) and an exchange value (they can be exchanged for other commodities or money) . In the market for these products, there is a clear divide between the consumer’s social need for the water bottle and the exchange value created by the company. But it is not just the companies that are at fault. Consumers desire to purchase the name brand water bottles like YETI, Hydro Flask, and Camelbak instead of a cheaper more reasonable priced water bottle that serves the same purpose. These higher end water bottles have become a 21st-century status symbol and a form of self-expression. Knowing that people are willing to spend more than fifty dollars on a reusable water bottle speaks volumes about societies concern for the environment in the Anthropocene in 2019. The incredibly high sales degree of these water bottles is due to numerous reasons, none of which benefit the environment. They are a convenience, they keep drinks colder, remind people to stay hydrated, they help companies advertise, and they are sold to generate a profit. While considering that reusable water bottles only have one purpose, to help the environment, is not realistic, their goal of reducing waste should be acknowledged. But few brands even mention the positive effect on the environment.  

An advertisement for Hydro Flask found on their website says, “We believe it is the unique combination of temperature, taste, and transport that make a Hydro Flask more than just a water bottle, and allows us to deliver what no one else can – unexpected refreshment each and every time”. They are highlighting their vacuum insulated technology, flex cap design for supreme portability, and the fact that the stainless steel protects against flavor transfer. They do not mention anything about the recycling properties and capabilities of stainless steel or why consumers should make the switch from plastic disposable water bottles to a reusable sustainable one like Hydro Flask. This is because it is not what consumers want to hear, so they do not market them this way. Consumers are only concerned about how it will be a convenience to them.

Reusable water bottles are assumed to be a positive innovation for the environment, but this needs to be examined closer. With the amount of people that use them, it is very clear that people in the Anthropocene acknowledges the damage that regular plastic water bottles can cause, but these reusable water bottles are as far as humans will go to fix this damage. They are a great representation of the Anthropocene because they are a pure human created and marketed item that is not easily recycled and require much more energy to make than regular plastic water bottles. To make the whole world clean, it will take more than just an alternative. Although companies and consumers know the proper way to use them and dispose of them, they are still being used incorrectly, ending up in landfills, and not being taken seriously by brands and consumers.