WARNING! - Do NOT Reuse Plastic Water Bottles

Refilling and reusing plastic bottles can release toxic cancer-causing chemicals and also cause bacterial infections

Most types of plastic bottles are safe to reuse at least a few times if properly washed with hot soapy water. However, how clean can we ever get plastic? I have used military water bottles of the plastic kind before but found that the plastic more often than not leaves a taste in the later and I am not sure how clean I can get them even in very hot water. The hotter they get washed, I found, the more the water tasted funny afterwards.

But recent revelations about chemicals in bottles of certain types of plastic, such as Lexan, are enough to scare even the most committed environmentalists from reusing them (or buying them in the first place).

Then again why anyone, unless there is no other option, buy bottled water in the first place beats me anyway, especially if we consider that a great deal of bottled water is nothing but packaged tap water in the first place. Why would you want to pay for something that you can get for “free”, even if you are out and about. In public parks and other places there you will find public drinking fountains and it should be possible to fill up your own, ideally proper safe plastic, such as the military canteens (I personally don't like the taste of them too much), or metal, water bottle.

Chemicals May Contaminate Food and Drinks in Reused Plastic Bottles

Studies have indicated that food and drinks stored in such containers – including those ubiquitous clear Nalgene water bottles hanging from just about every hiker’s backpack – can contain trace amount of Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that interferes with the body’s natural hormonal messaging system. How lovely – NOT! What next?

Reused Plastic Bottles Can Leach Toxic Chemicals

The same studies found that repeated re-use of such bottles - which get dinged up through normal wear and tear and while being washed - increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop over time. According to the Environment California Research & Policy Center, which reviewed 130 studies on the topic, BPA has been linked to breast and uterine cancer, an increased risk of miscarriage, and decreased testosterone levels. Well, I guess here is the answer to my “what next?” question.

BPA can also wreak havoc on children’s developing systems. (Parents beware: Most baby bottles and sippy cups are made with plastics containing BPA.) Most experts agree that the amount of BPA that could leach into food and drinks through normal handling is probably very small, but there are concerns about the cumulative effect of small doses.

Even Plastic Water and Soda Bottles Should Not Be Reused

Health advocates also recommend not reusing bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or PETE, including most disposable water, soda and juice bottles.

According to The Green Guide, such bottles may be safe for one-time use, but re-use should be avoided because studies indicate they may leach DEHP - another probable human carcinogen - when they are in less-than-perfect condition.

In addition to that, e.g. carcinogens, the other problem is that such bottles cannot be 100% sterilized and bacteria may accumulate over use and time and could really seriously harm the drinker. This, in fact, is one of the greatest concerns about the reuse of PET bottles. If the water is too hot it may melt or deform the bottle and, although no study seems to have been conducted on that as yet, who is to say that there is not a further release of some chemicals occurring when such heat is applied.

Millions of Plastic Bottles End Up in Landfills

The good news is that such bottles are easy to recycle; just about every municipal recycling system will take them back. But using them is nonetheless far from environmentally responsible: The nonprofit Berkeley Ecology Center found that the manufacture of PET uses large amounts of energy and resources and generates toxic emissions and pollutants that contribute to global warming. And even though PET bottles can be recycled, millions find their way into landfills every day in the U.S. alone.

Incinerating Plastic Bottles Releases Toxic Chemicals

Another bad choice for water bottles, reusable or otherwise, is polyvinyl chloride or PVC, which can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into the liquids they are storing and will release synthetic carcinogens into the environment when incinerated. Plastic Polystyrene or PS, has been shown to leach styrene, a probable human carcinogen, into food and drinks as well. Not that I have, I must admit, as yet seen water bottles made of polystyrene.

Safe Reusable Bottles Do Exist

Safer choices include bottles crafted from safer HDPE, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polypropylene (PP). Consumers may have a hard time finding water bottles made out of LDPE or PP, however. Aluminum bottles, such as those made by SIGG and sold in many natural food and natural product markets, and stainless steel water bottles are also safe choices and can be reused repeatedly and eventually, in the final end, recycled. The aluminum one, we must remember, must be coated on the inside with a special sealant, often this appears to be gold-based, to stop contamination by the heavy metal which aluminum is but aluminum is, as mentioned in the article on aluminum recycling, fully recyclable, as is, obviously, stainless steel. Such bottles, however, should last for many years if not generations even. Less environmental impact and another reason to invest in some of them.

Looks like all in all the best advice could be: bring your own bottle of aluminum or stainless steel and also bring along a stainless steel cup, for the polystyrene ones certainly cannot be recommended.

Michael Smith (Veshengro), December 2007

N.B. I hope to be able to bring you, the readers, in due course, product reviews on the SIGG bottle(s) and hopefully also on one or the others.