Plastic bottles: key figures of an environmental disaster


Europeans are among first water bottles consumers in the world. However, this single-use product has an huge impact on environment and health. Let's talk about this over-consumption, pollution, recycling and health impacts of those predaceous plastics.

Plastic bottles in top 10 « serial litters »

Each year, plastic bottles are in the top 10 litters most found on coastline during collections organised by Ocean Initiatives in Europe. In 2016, 25 744 bottles were collected. Those collections organised by Surfrider Foundation Europe are awareness programs for citizens on marine litter on beaches, lakes, rivers and seabed. Whatever the place of collection, plastic bottles are always among most found litter in natural environment. Wind and ocean currents carry them to areas of marine accumulations and on beaches. Whatever their destination, those litter damage their environment on a long term basis.

Once in the environment, they massively damage aquatic fauna and flora.Bottles deteriorate, break up in microplastics which are spread in oceans, and can be eaten by marine species. Marine species can suffer from suffocation and bowel obstruction, and sometimes die. However, species can also survive and carry in their bodies chemical molecules from plastic. A scientific study mentioned that those polluting discharges could accumulate in the food chain and end up in our plates.

Water bottles represent most of the plastic bottles found during those collections. Still in 2016, 53,18% of collected bottles were water bottles, and 24,58% were sodas or ice tea bottles. Those figures show that this issue is closely related to our water bottle consumption.

Europeans: first consumers of water bottles (per person and per year)

52 billion liters of water are bottled and drunk by European in one year. This represents 109,9 L per person per year. Thus, Europe is the first consumer of water bottle, in front of North America and Middle-East

In 2016, Italy (188.5L/inhab.), Germany (177.3L/ inhab.), Hungary (131.1L/ inhab.) and Belgium (126.6L/ inhab.) were the biggest water bottles consumers in Europe.

To buy water plastic bottles can be explained by a willingness to drink a water assumed as rich in minerals and more pure, as it was not affected by same treatments as tap water. Bottle water is directly bottled from the source and come from a single ground water. However, tap water is from ground and surface water from lakes and rivers, and has treatments in order to determine its potability (disinfection or chlorination) before being distributed to consumer through different distribution systems.

In some cases, consumers buy water bottles by default because of the bad quality of their tap water. Ground water from some geographic areas can be polluted by pesticides used in intensive farming for exemple. In 2013, this pollution type was mainly present in North-East of France. Cartography Eau France can be checked in order to assess the quality of tap water distributed around you in France. In order to get the same information for another country, ask local public utilities, or check out European Commission website to find institutional of health website of your european country.

In other cases, this consumption can be explained by the fact that there are more than 2 000 mineral water springs in Europe, including in 821 Germany and 322 in Italy. It is more than one quarter of the water bottle production, and a lot of different brands. As competition is high, price are low and attractive.

Europe produces 994 430 tons of plastic per year, the weight equivalent to 100 Eiffel towers. As those volumes are huge, Europe has to react in order to recycle this litter.

An inefficient recycling

Plastic bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE), a 100% recycling material. This material can be recognised if the Resin Identification Code is indicated on the product and if it shows a Category 1 plastic. There are 7 plastic categories, depending on the material used and its usage. The mention of the category number is not mandatory, but we often find it under plastic bottles.

Resin Identification Code PET

Moreover, they are single use bottles as those plastic materials cannot be reused for health reasons. Recycling this litter should therefore be adapted to this huge consumption.

However, bottle recycling in Europe is not done enough. In 2015 in Europe, 1,8 million tones of PET bottles were collected and recycled; this represents only 59% of the bottles sold on the market. This represents a small number, as we know that a European has an average consumption of 73 water bottles of 1,5L per year.

In order to improve this trend, Surfider with its campaign Reset Your Habits to raise public awareness on alternatives (reusable bottle, returnable bottle), to increase water fountains in public areas and to encourages public authorities to recycle plastic waste,.

It is time to change our habits in order to protect environment !


Sources :

  • Petcore Europe 2015
  • European Federation of Bottled Waters Report 2015
  • The impact of debris on marine life, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Vol 92 – S.C. Gall, R.C. Thompson
  • Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer, Bilan Environnemental des IO 2016 (Surfrider Foundation Europe)


Writing: Nahia Farmer

Translation: Mélanie LEMSEFFER

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