Plastic Bottles on Campus

What is it?

Plastic bottles are most commonly used as containers for fluids such as water, soft drink, milk and juice.  You can find them in retail outlets and vending machines across campus. Sales of drinks in plastic bottles is becoming increasingly popular - particularly bottled water. While a seemingly convenient way to quench your thirst, plastic bottles actually generate an enormous impact from production to disposal.

Why is it important?

There are so many reasons why it is important to consider the issues that come hand in hand with using plastic bottles. The impacts are many and varied.

The Environmental Impact

Plastic bottles are made from a petroleum product known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and they require huge amounts of fossil fuels to both make and transport them. If you fill a plastic bottle with liquid so that it is 25% full, that's roughly how much oil it took to make that one bottle. For a single-use disposable item, that's a lot of oil! The Earth Policy Institute estimates that the energy used to pump, process, transport and refrigerate bottled water alone is over 50 million barrels of oil annually. Imagine the amount of oil required for all types of plastic bottles in distribution - that's a lot of mining and environmental impact.

It's also harder to recycle plastic bottles than you think. Of the mass numbers of plastic bottles consumed throughout the world, most of them are not recycled because only certain types of plastic bottles can be recycled by certain municipalities. They either end up lying stagnant in landfills, leaching dangerous chemicals into the ground, or they infiltrate our streets as litter. They are found on sidewalks, in parks, front yards and rivers, and even if you chop them into tiny pieces they still take more than a human lifetime to decompose. According to the 2010 Clean Up Australia Rubbish Report, one in ten items found on Clean Up Australia Day were related to plastic drinking bottles. Much of the waste that doesn't make it to landfill or recycling ends up in our oceans. The incorrect disposal of plastic bottles is such an issue that the Pacific Ocean is becoming known as the world's largest landfill.

The Pacific Ocean - The World's Largest Landfill

The Pacific Ocean is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which also is known as the "World's Largest Landfill," according to the European Commission. An estimated 3.5 million tons of trash reside in this landfill that are the result of whirling currents in the Pacific Ocean that pull trash and pollution into the ocean. The landfill's area is the size of Europe, or 3.45 million kilometres squared -- that's a lot of trash.

It gets worse. In the case of bottled water, the plastic-making process requires over two gallons of water for the purification process of every gallon of water.

The Animal Impact

Turtle with a plastic bag

Plastic bottle tops are currently not recyclable as a single item, and as with plastic bags they often end up at the bottom of the ocean, and in the stomachs of a variety of animal species that mistake them for food. One albatross that was recently found dead on a Hawaiian island had a stomach full of 119 bottle caps.

Marine life falls prey to this problem on a daily basis. A sperm whale was found dead on a North American beach recently with a plastic gallon bottle which had gummed up its small intestine. The animal's body was full of plastic material including other plastic bottles, bottle caps and plastic bags. Due to the high amount of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, it has been found that fish species also have been affected. Fish ingest an estimated 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic per year in the Pacific Ocean, according to research from the University of California San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Institute researchers collected 141 fishes of 27 species and found that 9.2 percent of the fish had small bits of plastic debris in their stomachs. There's a human impact to that when you think about the amount of fish we eat on an annual basis....

The Human Impact

Man with many plastic bottles

Many plastic bottles contain Bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical used to make the plastic hard and clear. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that has been proven to be hazardous to human health. It has been strongly linked to a host of health problems including certain types of cancer, neurological difficulties, early puberty in girls, reduced fertility in women, premature labour, and defects in newborn babies - to name a few examples. BPA enters the human body through exposure to plastics such as bottled drinks and cleaning products. It has been found in significant amounts in at-risk groups such as pregnant women's placentas and growing foetuses. Due to the health implications, many bottle manufacturing plants are working to eliminate BPA from their products, but this elimination has not been completely achieved as yet.

Bottling plants also cause problems for the humans who live near them. Water extraction surrounding bottling plants involved millions of litres of water to make the bottles.  This often leads to local water shortages that affects nearby residents, especially farmers.

Did you know?

  • Tap water has only 1% the environmental impact of bottled water;
  • Bottled water production generated an estimated 600 times more CO² than tap water;
  • Australians spent more than $500m on bottled water last year;
  • One bottle of water has the same impact on the environment as driving a vehicle 1km;
  • More than 65% of water bottles end as landfill;
  • Australia's consumption of bottled water uses 314,000 barrels of oil/year to produce(1).

Information on Bottled Water

Australia's annual consumption of bottled water is about 600 million litres. To sell this much bottled water, the industry uses approximately 1 billion litres of water each year. In environmental terms the production and distribution of this volume of bottled water created more than 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the emissions 13,000 cars generate in one year. The funny thing is that studies have shown that tap water in Australia is as healthy for you as bottled water. Find out more...

What are we doing?

Macquarie University is committed to lessening the burden placed on the environment through the production, transport and disposal of plastic bottles, whilst ensuring that our staff and students maintain the opportunity for choice, and without greatly impacting on the economical viability of our retail outlets. Rather than banning the sale of bottled water outright to support this commitment, the University will take a more holistic view and look to replace the sale of all plastic water, soft drink and juice bottles with alternative solutions. The University will ensure sufficient access to water bubblers and bottle refill stations across campus, and further commit to working with our retail tenants to ensure a consistent approach across campus. The University welcomes the active participation of its community in enacting this commitment and will happily receive suggestions to achieving the stated outcomes. This commitment will be undertaken over a three to five year period, assuming that viable alternatives exist in that time frame.

Read our Action Plan...

Year Action Comment
2013 Continue to monitor sales at the Library Cafe. Monitored sales throughout 2013 and it was clear that the sale of carbonate unhealthy drinks was constantly climbing despite having water jugs available at the café. As a result, bottled water will be introduced for sale until another solution can be installed which provides staff and students with the convenience they require.
  Better communicate free water options at Library Cafe. No longer necessary
  Investigate installation of a water bottle filling station in the Library Cafe. Under way, currently working out which supplier to utilise.
  Investigate water vending options. At this stage still not a feasible option as there is a cost associated with the water vending machine - a cost for the University and more importantly a cost for staff and students to refill bottles and cups.
  Map where filtered water bubblers are currently located. Mapping exercise currently underway and due for completion mid November. Also looking to have fountains and bubblers included in the Lost on Campus app.
  Research current and alternate suppliers. Research has shown that there is little difference between the major suppliers in the material used to package drinks. The larger, more dominant brands are currently investigating ways to produce biodegradable plastic for their products.
  Compare the impact of plastic vs glass vs aluminium.

The research has been completed and shows that currently plastic is still the least environmentally impactful solution for drink packaging. While aluminium and glass would seem a better solution, not enough is being done to appropriately close the loop on these products.

Click here to download our research report.

2014 Investigate and implement opportunities to reduce bottled water and other bottled products at on-campus events and functions. We host quite a few events on campus, so we want to make sure that we reduce our impact in this space as well.
  Review tenant agreements for opportunities to include the sale of bottled water from identified quality suppliers to support ongoing manufacturing and process developments in the bottled water industry. Tenant agreements are tricky to work with and are usually in place for a number of years. We will work with our tenants to build their awareness on the impacts of using plastic bottles, and assist them in finding alternatives paths forward, whilst working with suppliers who have good ongoing practices.
  If feasible, install additional filtered water fountains in high pedestrian areas, as identified through the 2013 mapping exercise. Under way, currently working out which supplier to utilise.
  If appropriate, install a water vending machine in a high usage, highly visible area. Monitor and measure success of the machine.  
  Commence implementation of the findings of the PET/aluminium/glass study conducted in 2013.  
  Work with TAG to see if it is possible to elevate the weight of sustainability impacts when deciding contracts.  
2015 Access progress and continue to investigate alternatives to plastic bottle packaging on campus.  

What can you do?

  • The best thing to do is to avoid purchasing bottled products, and in particular bottled water. By avoiding bottled water and refilling your own bottle you can help conserve virgin resources and protect our pristine nature. Another great side effect is saving money. One bottle of water can cost you around $2.50 versus only a few cents per litre for tap water. So start refilling your water bottle today
  • Pick up and recycle any plastic bottles you find as rubbish. Macquarie has a one bin system, so you are recycling by placing it into any nearby rubbish bin
  • Support the campaign for Container Deposit Legislation
  • Call for the installation of more water fountains around campus to allow people to refill reusable bottles.

How can I find out more?