Hey all! This is PHLASK contributor Patrick Eells. I’m excited to share a study on drinking water delivery systems that I did in 2014 and highlight some of the findings and relevance to PHLASK. Before I get started, a bit of background on how I got involved with PHLASK. I met Billy and Taylor at a recent Code for Philly networking event, and as they described the vision for PHLASK I was intrigued and immediately thought back to this project I did on the environmental impacts of bottled water at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014.
The project was an exercise in Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), a technique to assess the environmental impacts of a product or system from cradle to grave – including its materials, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal. In this case I compared the environmental impacts of two systems for drinking water distribution on campus: 1) via bottled water, and 2) reusable water bottle filling stations that were being installed on campus at the time.
Now before I start you might be saying to yourself, “Wait – I already know the answer. Water bottle filling stations are obviously going to be more environmentally friendly than single use plastic water bottles, right? Why even bother doing the math?” And I agree – it seems intuitive that something reusable will be better for the environment than something disposable, but sometimes the results of an LCA can be surprising.
Consider the case of the reusable grocery bag – most of us have a bunch of them sitting around at home, and if you’re diligent and remember to bring them with you to the grocery store it probably is better for the environment than getting disposable ones. But how many times do you have to reuse a bag for it to be better than a single use plastic bag? Do most of us actually use it often enough? LCAs can help us answer questions like this – and this LCA suggests that on average the overall impacts of using disposable bags is about the same as it is for reusable bags! That isn’t to say that using reusable bags is a waste of time. Indeed if you use them consistently they can be a much more environmentally friendly way to get your groceries home, but it does point out that we need to be diligent about actually re-using them for it to be a better overall system.
The same kind of logic applies to a water delivery system. If you lose your nalgene every week it probably isn’t going to be better than buying an aquafina for all of your drinking water needs. And the same goes for water bottle filling stations – what are the environmental impacts associated with their lifecycle? Shouldn’t someone do the math before the university spends a bunch of money putting them in? And thats where I came in with the calculator.
So what were the results? Here are a few key findings:
The bottle filling stations were at least 3 times more environmentally friendly than single use plastic water bottles.
The most important factors for efficiency were the use-rate of the water bottle filling stations, so water filling stations should be concentrated in high use areas.
Recycling was not a big factor. Whether or not the single use plastic water bottles were recycled made almost no difference to their overall environmental impact. It turns out that it takes a lot of energy to recycle a plastic water bottle and that eats up the benefit of not putting it in a landfill.
So in addition to being more affordable ($$ free to users! $$) than single use water bottles, the LCA showed that the environmental impacts of the bottle filling station system were much lower than single use water bottles.
In PHLASK’s vision, people fill up using existing water infrastructure, so the overall environmental impacts of filling up a water bottle will be very low. The only additional impact comes from the bottle you carry around.