Chuanzhen (Elaine) Zhou

Rohm and Haas Corporate Fellow

Arts & Sciences: Chemistry | PhD


Cohort 2006


Graduated 2009


Career: Surface Analysis Scientist | North Carolina State University | Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

Scholar Highlights

Bottled Water: A Double Debt to Energy and Environment

Bottled water has become an indispensable product in our lives. It starts the day in lunch boxes; it goes to every meeting, lecture hall, and football match; and it’s rattling around on the floor of every minivan in America. However, the convenience of bottled water brings us and our descendants a double debt: increased energy consumption and environmental pollution.

Bottled water is not only up to 10,000 times more expensive than tap water, but bad for energy and the environment because of the manufacture, transportation, and disposal of petroleum-based plastic bottles.

Hidden behind the convenience of the bottled water are high energy consumption and extreme environmental destruction.

Processing and manufacturing plastic water bottles, as well as shipping them to market are very energy intensive. The petroleum consumed just to manufacture the world’s plastic containers is 1.5 million barrels annually, enough to fuel 100,000 U.S. cars for the whole year. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to reach consumers. For example, the well-known French company Evian exports between 50 and 60 percent of its water to destinations across the globe. That is why bottled water costs as much as $10 a gallon,—several times the price of gasoline.

Bottled water also carries a heavy environmental cost in the form of adding plastic to landfills, and of course it puts uses natural springs and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) during transportation. Most of the plastic bottles we use are not recycled. Each year, about 95 billion plastic bottles end up in U.S. landfills alone, and it takes around 2,000 years for each plastic bottle to decompose!

In America, most plastic water bottles end up in the garbage or litter. Only 14% are recycled, which is far lower than the 60% that are recycled in China. In the U.S., the inclination and opportunities for recycling outside the home are minimal. In contrast, people in China have a strong awareness about recycling plastic bottles and most keep the empty plastic bottles to sell them for about a penny apiece.

A small portion of people in China make their living by collecting empty bottles and selling them to a recycling factory. In the Hang Zhou Province of China, for instance, a plastic container recycling factory receives 1.5 to 1.8 million plastic bottles each day. After a series of reprocessing steps, these become soft, elastic, and useful fiber fills, which have many applications.

At one time most Americans got their water only from the tap. But now, they often buy water in a bottle at work, after exercising, or just about any other time during their day. Americans are drinking bottled water at a record pace – 28.6 billion liters in 2005. According to the International Bottled Water Association, that’s about the same amount of water that passes over Niagara Falls in two hours.

Should we decrease our use of bottled water? The answer is definitely yes. A few U.S. cities have started campaigns against drinking bottled water when it is not necessary. For example, the mayor of San Francisco banned city employees from using city funds to buy bottled water when tap water is available. Ann Arbor, Michigan passed a resolution banning commercially bottled water at city events, and Salt Lake City asked department heads to eliminate bottled water. It’s time to drink tap water, filter our own water, and fill up our own reusable bottles for water on-the-go.

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