The Dangers of Reusing Plastic Bottles

Why You're Better Off Avoiding Them in the First Place

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. However, recent revelations about some of the toxic chemicals found in Lexan (plastic #7) bottles are enough to prevent even the most committed environmentalists from reusing them—or buying them in the first place.

Studies suggest 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 hormone 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 potentially leach into food and drinks through normal handling is probably very small. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the cumulative effect of these small doses over time.

Why Plastic Water and Soda Bottles Shouldn't 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. Such bottles may be safe for one-time use but reuse should be avoided. Studies also indicate that the containers may leach DEHP—another probable human carcinogen—when they are structurally compromised and in less than perfect condition.

Millions of Plastic Bottles End Up in Landfills

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, which works out to 20,000 per second—in 2016 alone, 480 billion bottles were sold. Fortunately, these containers are easy to recycle and just about every municipal recycling system will take them back. Still, using them is far from environmentally responsible. The nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic would produce more than 850 metric tons of greenhouse gases, toxic emissions and pollutants that contribute to global warming. And even though PET bottles can be recycled, fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling, and just 7% were converted into new bottles. The remainder find their way into landfills every day.

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 stored in them and also 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 and stainless steel water bottles, such as those you'll find at online retailers and in many brick-and-mortar natural food markets, are safer choices that can be reused repeatedly and eventually recycled.

View Article Sources
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  2. Gibson, Rachel L. "Toxic Baby Bottles: Scientific Study Finds Leaching Chemicals in Clear Plastic Baby Bottles." Environment California Research and Policy Center, 27 Feb. 2007.

  3. Xu, Xiangqin et al. "Phthalate Esters and Their Potential Risk in PET Bottled Water Stored under Common Conditions." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no. 1, 2020, pp: 141, doi:10.3390/ijerph17010141

  4. Laville, Sandra, and Matthew Taylor. "A million bottles a minute: world's plastic binge 'as dangerous as climate change.'" The Guardian, 28 Jun 2017.

  5. Kistler, Amanda, and Carroll Muffett (eds.) "Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet." Center for International Environmental Law, 2019.