Sunday morning drive, my girls in the car, listening to music and playing a game of “I spy.” It’s an 18 mile ride, easy stretches through city areas, suburbs, wooded borders.
Admiring the trees, we began noticing the steady amount of trash punctuating the roadside, and that almost each piece was a single-use beverage container. We swiftly became 3 ladies on a data gathering mission. My oldest rode in the front seat, pen and paper in hand, tallying the trash we saw into 4 categories: cans, cups, bottles and other as we shouted out what we saw.
Take a moment, close your eyes and take a guess at how many disposable beverage containers we saw littering the roadside.
What was your guess? My husband guessed 36. Our son guessed 54.
While driving 30 to 50mph on roads and highways, recognizing we missed several, our tally grew to 96 cups, 93 cans, 114 bottles and 46 “other,” which were mainly plastic bags and food wrappings. That tallies to 303 single-use, all-recyclable drinking containers. 303. In 18 miles. That’s not counting the 46 other items and pieces we missed. Let that sink in a moment.
We immediately started asking questions. Do people just chug a drink and toss it out the window? This often? And who is drinking this much beer while they drive through suburbia? Have people never heard of reusable water bottles?
After our rising moment of outrage, we assessed our data. Most bottles were plastic, and of those, most were water bottles. Most cups were from fast food restaurants, many styrofoam. Cans were soft drinks and beer.
Earlier that day, I went for a neighborhood walk before the kids were awake. It’s really hard for me to step of litter, so I ended up filling a reusable grocery bag with garbage. More than half of the items were for drinking, and nearly the whole bag’s contents were recyclable. Again, lots of water bottles, straws, cups and cans.
Americans have a drinking problem.
We need to learn to drink responsibly.
“Americans make more trash than anyone else on the planet, throwing away about 7.1 pounds per person per day, 365 days a year….Across a lifetime that rate means, on average, we are each on track to generate 102 tons of trash.” -Garbology, Edward Humes
Judging from the litter on the roadside, disposable beverage containers are a huge source of our waste. Think of how long (or short) it takes you to chug a bottle of water. Drink a can of coke. Enjoy your styrofoam cup of Chick-fil-a lemonade. Your Starbuck’s iced mocha. After you’ve had your fill, you toss the container.
While most of us are way more responsible with our trash than the people throwing it out the car window (please tell me that’s not you!?), it is such a quickly trashed vessel that it deserves a second look, a moment of reconsideration. Even with recycling, which is infinitely better than sending your briefly-enjoyed canned beverage to the landfill, our high (and climbing) rate of consumption is getting out of hand.
Did you know that Americans collectively toss 694 plastic water bottles each second? That it takes 17 million barrels of oil to make the plastic beverage bottles Americans use up each year? That 3 liters of water are used to make 1 liter of bottled water? That Americans trash 25 billion styrofoam cups each year? That’s enough to “circle the earth 436 times.” [1} And these items don’t decompose, don’t biodegrade. Plastic and styrofoam are here to stay, like forever, after you enjoy your brief drink.
We can see the drinking problem - overflowing in park trash cans, littering the roadsides, dotting beaches, floating onshore. We know the statistics - only a tiny portion of these recyclable containers are ever recycled. We know it’s oh so easy to swing through the drive through and grab a quick drink, or grab some water bottles out of the fridge, to be cheaply bought and easily disposed of. But while it seems convenient to us now, and our waste (mostly) ends up out of sight, out of mind, all this trash has to go somewhere. Somewhere it will stay and end up as mountains of archaeological history displaying our era of plastic waste.
So what can you do?
The first option is easy: get a reusable water bottle. Most of us already have several sitting in our cabinets. Fill it up, take it with you, use it. In nearly every place in America, tap water is just as good as bottled water. There are so many studies and articles detailing this, so I won’t keep going.
Make healthier choices. If you have your filled water bottle on hand, you find you don’t need to purchase to-go drinks at the gas station, fast food restaurants, or anywhere else you may be caught thirsty. You also end up drinking more water instead of sugary drinks.
If you want soft drinks, it’s better to buy larger bottles instead of single servings. One large bottle poured into reusable containers reduces the number of bottles and increases the likelihood that it will get disposed of properly. I have to say I’ve never picked up a 2 liter bottle of coke off the ground.
Our kids love Gatorade and other sports drinks. Buy the powder and mix your own. Pour it in a large cooler or individual reusable bottles. This is more affordable and reduces your plastic footprint immensely.
Choose aluminum cans or glass bottles, which can be endlessly recycled as opposed to the down-cycling and eventual exhaustion of plastic recycling. If you enjoy beer, get a refillable beer growler and enjoy fresh draft beer with zero waste. We go to Whole Foods to fill our growler.
Get a reusable coffee mug. Coffee shops will fill your own to-go cup and often give you a discount.
Refuse plastic straws. It works best if you ask when you order your drink, with a polite “Oh, and I won’t need a straw.” Equip yourself with stainless straws if you would like an alternative. I have a handy retractable straw I keep in my wallet so I won’t forget.
Use reusable cups for parties, with pitchers or coolers for filling.
Dispose of waste properly. Plastic bottles and cups, aluminum cans, glass bottles and styrofoam cups can all be recycled. Straws and plastic-lined paper cups can’t. Curbside bins generally only accept #1 and #2 plastics, but you can drop off your glass and styrofoam at many stores.
To combat those inevitable litterbugs, and keep our waste from heading down storm drains, into rivers and finally to the ocean, pick up trash when you see it and drop it in the nearest trash can.
Recognizing our disposable drinking problem is the first step. Notice each time you drink from a single-use beverage container. Start building the habit of taking reusable water bottles and coffee mugs with you.
By making small steps together, we can create great change!
 Humes, Edward, Garbology (New York, Avery, 2012), 105-106.