The Dangers of Reusing Plastic Bottles

Overhead view of empty plastic bottles
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Most types of plastic bottles are safe to reuse at least a few times if properly washed with hot soapy water. But revelations about chemicals in Lexan (plastic #7) bottles are enough to scare away even the most committed environmentalists from reusing them (or buying them in the first place).

Studies have indicated that food and drinks stored in such containers—including those ubiquitous clear water bottles hanging from just about every hiker’s backpack—can contain trace amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that may interfere with the body’s natural hormonal messaging system.

Reused Plastic Bottles Can Leach Toxic Chemicals

Repeated re-use of plastic bottles—which get dinged up through normal wear and tear while being washed—increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop in the containers 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, increased risk of miscarriage, and decreased testosterone levels.

BPA can also wreak havoc on children’s developing systems. (Parents beware: Some 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. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the cumulative effect of small doses.

Even Plastic Water and Soda Bottles Should Not Be Reused

Health advocates advise against reusing bottles made from plastic #1 (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 reuse should be avoided. Studies indicate that the containers may leach DEHP—another probable human carcinogen—when they are in less than perfect condition.

Millions of Plastic Bottles End Up in Landfills

Every year, consumers go through millions of plastic bottles. Fortunately, these containers are easy to recycle; just about every municipal recycling system will take them back. Still, using them is far from environmentally responsible. The nonprofit Berkeley Ecology Center found that the manufacture of plastic #1 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 plastic #3 (polyvinyl chloride/PVC), which can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into the liquids they are storing and which release synthetic carcinogens into the environment when incinerated. Plastic #6 (polystyrene/PS) has been shown to leach styrene, a probable human carcinogen, into food and drinks as well.

Safe Reusable Bottles Do Exist

Plastic bottles are not the only reusable containers available to consumers. Safer choices include bottles crafted from HDPE (plastic #2), low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or plastic #4), or polypropylene (PP, or plastic #5). Aluminum bottles, such as those made by SIGG and sold in many natural food markets, and stainless steel water bottles are also safer choices that can be reused repeatedly and eventually recycled.