The 3 Phase Life Cycle of a Plastic Water Bottle

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We live in a world where most of us don’t think twice about grabbing a bottle of water on the go or even exclusively drinking bottled water rather than water from our faucets.

You might not think of what happens to your used water bottles beyond the trash can or recycling bin. But if you’re curious about the life cycle of a plastic water bottle from start to finish, we’ve come to the right place.

Here, we’ve outlined the three key stages in a single-use plastic water bottle’s life cycle.

πŸ“Œ Key Takeaways:

  • The three phases of a plastic water bottle’s life cycle are manufacturing, distribution, and disposal.
  • Most plastic water bottles can be recycled at a dedicated recycling facility, but they can generally only be reused up to three times before they’re no longer fit for purpose.
  • You can greatly reduce your plastic bottle use by filtering your tap water at home.

πŸ”„ Plastic Water Bottle Life Cycle: 3 Phases

There are three main phases to a plastic water bottle’s life cycle:

Phase 1: Manufacturing

The manufacturing process is where the life cycle of a plastic water bottle begins.

Plastic bottles are made from natural gas or crude oil. Both of these must be extracted from the earth and shipped and refined to make them suitable for their intended purpose.

Natural gas and crude oil both contain hydrocarbons, compounds that break down into smaller units (monomers) when they’re heated at very high temperatures and high pressure.

To make plastic water bottles and other plastic products, monomers are combined to form polymers through one of two processes: polycondensation or polymerization.

The end product can now be delivered to bottled water brands, who use the bottles to store their product, ready for distribution.

Process of manufacturing plastic water bottles

Phase 2: Distribution

The distribution phase is when bottled water manufacturers ship their products nationally or even internationally, where they’re stocked in stores, to be purchased by the consumer. Usually, bottled water is delivered in bulk by truck, ship, or rail to the retailer, or, in some cases, delivered direct to the consumer.

Millions of plastic water bottles are sold every year in the USA. An estimated 15.3 billion gallons of bottled water were sold in the country in 2021.

Customers buy and consume their favorite bottled water products – that’s the bit you’ll be familiar with.

One person’s bottled water usage may look very different from another person’s. Some people exclusively drink bottled water instead of tap water, while others only drink bottled water when they’re traveling and don’t have access to tap water.

Phase 3: Disposal Or Recycling

The final phase of a plastic water bottle’s life cycle is disposal or recycling.

This phase may result in one of three outcomes, depending on how the bottle is disposed of:

  • If the bottle is recycled, it’ll be processed and reused at a recycling plant.
  • If the bottle is disposed of in a general trash can, it’ll end up on landfill.
  • If the bottle is littered, it’ll pollute the environment and gradually decompose over hundreds of years.

Let’s take a look at each of these outcomes in more detail.

Recycling

Nowadays, almost all plastic water bottles can be recycled, which means there’s no need for them to contribute to a person’s plastic waste.

Most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET. PET is a type-1 plastic, meaning it can be easily recycled.

During the recycling process, PET bottles are shredded with other PET plastic packaging and products, melted, and reformed into pellets. These pellets can then be used to produce new products made from PET plastic.

Recycled PET is known as rPET, rePET, or rPETE. It can be used to create a variety of products, including more single-use water bottles, clothing, and upholstery.

PET can be recycled up to three times, so recycling your plastic bottles is the best outcome.

Recycling plastic water bottles

Landfill

You might not be presented with the opportunity to dispose of your plastic water bottles in a recycling bin, especially if you’re on the go and only have access to general waste bins.

In this case, your used plastic bottle will be transported to a landfill site, where the bottle will slowly and gradually break down.

The average plastic bottle has a lifespan of 450 years. That means a bottle you might give only 10 minutes of your attention to ends up decomposing for decades beyond the end of your own lifespan.

When you read figures like those, it’s easy to understand why plastic pollution is a problem that world leaders are beginning to finally take seriously.

Because an empty bottle is lightweight, it’s likely to blow away from a landfill site and end up polluting the environment, including our rivers and seas. Here, the plastic breaks down into tiny microplastics, which pollute surface water bodies and pose a threat to aquatic life.

If you can, keep hold of a plastic bottle once it’s empty, and recycle it when you have the opportunity.

Littering

The worst end to a plastic bottle’s lifespan is a result of littering.

There are many people who are simply unable to comprehend the consequences of mindlessly tossing a plastic bottle out of their car window or leaving empty bottles on hiking trails or beaches.

Unless a good citizen happens to collect the bottle before it ends up in an inaccessible location, it’ll likely end up contributing to the 50 billion pieces of litter on the ground in America.

There is never an acceptable reason to litter. Even if it’s a hassle, hold onto your plastic water bottles and dispose of them sensibly in your nearest recycling bin.

Water bottle plastics harming the environment

βœ… Alternative To Plastic Bottle Use: Water Filtration

Even recycling plastic bottles isn’t the ideal long-term outcome because there are only so many times they can be recycled before they’re no longer fit for use.

If you want to avoid contributing to plastic waste from drinking bottles, there’s only one effective solution: install a water filtration system and drink filtered water straight from your faucet.

It’s understandable if you don’t want to drink your city water as it is because you don’t trust the quality or enjoy the taste. But that doesn’t mean you have to resort to stocking up on bottled water, which isn’t always cleaner than tap water (in fact, some bottled water products are simply bottled tap water).

Filtering your water at home doesn’t only help you to cut down on your bottled water use – it also means you can save money and have more control over the quality of your drinking water.

There are different filters with different contaminant removal capabilities, including:

  • Water filter pitchers – an affordable option that can remove up to hundreds of contaminants and even add healthy minerals to your water
  • Under-sink water filters – using one or several water filtration stages to remove chemicals, metals, and more
  • Reverse osmosis systems – remove up to 99.9% total dissolved solids, including chemicals, metals, microorganisms, pharmaceuticals, fluoride, pesticides, and more
  • Faucet filters – attach to the end of your faucets and provide basic water filtration, removing chlorine, tastes, and odors

Rather than buying bottled water while you’re out and about, you can fill a reusable bottle with filtered water and take it with you on the go. Reusable bottles are the best solution for staying hydrated in public places without having to drink poor quality water or spend your money on single-use water bottles.

Filtered water bottles on countertop

πŸ“‘ Final Word

The lifecycle of a plastic bottle starts and ends the same. Whether the bottle is recycled, trashed, or even littered, it’ll eventually end up slowly decomposing somewhere on the earth.

Bottled drinking water tastes great and typically contains fewer contaminants, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best water source you can access from home! Also consider filtering your tap water, which puts much less strain on our natural resources and has a significantly lower environmental impact.

  • Laura Shallcross
    Senior Editor

    Laura is a passionate residential water treatment journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Print Journalism and a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Over a span of 5 years she's written on a range of topics including water softening, well water treatment, and purification processes.

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