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Hippie Science and Melting Icecaps

June 23, 2008 on 8:49 am | In Life, Politics |

The more astute among you may have noticed that I haven’t been keeping up with the news the last few days. Your top stories are:

Why have I been delinquent? Because this past weekend I was away at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where some amazing sets were played by Ani DiFranco, Bela Fleck, Skaggs & Hornsby with Kentucky Thunder (probably my favorite set of the festival), Sam Bush, Arlo Guthrie, and many others.

It’s a well-known fact that hippies love music festivals, and one of the neat sustainability initiatives they had at the festival was no bottled water.

How does this work? You bring your own bottle, and they have a big booth dispensing drinkable, pressurized tap water into whatever container you like. It was really well-done. And on that booth was a sign with some facts about the bottled water industry, including the following two important ones:

  • 17 million barrels of oil are used to make the plastic for water bottles by the bottling industry every year.
  • Water kept in bottles is removed from the water cycle.

And I got to thinking about that second one. Water kept in bottles is removed from the water cycle. What does that mean? It means that it comes out of the environment’s ecosystem indefinitely, meaning this: we can use the bottled water industry to combat sea-level rising. Here’s how. You see, a barrel of crude oil contains a lot of different components, some goes towards producing gasoline, some towards plastics, and some towards oils like vaseline. Well, in the US, we use a lot of oil, namely, around 20 million barrels of oil per day. So about one day’s worth of plastics from crude oil is used by the bottled water industry. How much water is bottled per year? As of 2004, 41 billion gallons (154 billion liters) of bottled water in one year.

Well, instead of using this for selling and drinking, what if we used this to package the ice melting from Greenland and the Antarctic continent; could this offset global sea-level rising? Let’s find out! If the whole Greenland ice sheet melted, the sea level would rise by 7 meters, and if the whole Antarctic ice sheet melted, it would rise by 61 meters. More realistic estimates show that by 2100, the sea level will rise somewhere between 0.15 and 0.95 meters, with the average estimate of 0.5 meters. Well, about 2/3 of the Earth is water, and one liter is 1000 cubic centimeters. That means the volume of water on Earth of a rising sea is:

V = 2/3 * 4 * π * r2 * h

r = 6.37 * 108 cm, the radius of the Earth

h = 50 cm, the amount of sea-level rise expected

V = 1.7 * 1020 cm3 of water, or 170,000,000,000,000,000 (170 quadrillion) liters of water.

Well, that’s a lot more water than we can bottle. But what if we devoted our plastics industry to doing just this? Well, we currently bottle 154 billion liters a year, but only use a day’s worth of oil to do it, and the US only uses 25% of the world’s oil.

So if we took all the world’s oil and used it to make bottled water, we could store about 1500 times as much water as we currently do, or about 230,000,000,000,000 liters per year. If we did that with all of the crude oil worldwide every day for the next century, and stored that water away, we could remove 23 quadrillion liters of water from the ecosystem, or enough to lower the sea level by 7 centimeters.

So the bottled water industry isn’t going to be able to save us from sea-level rising after all. Well, now you’ve seen the math worked out, and so now you know why. It was a nice idea; too bad it won’t work out. Back to the four R’s: reuse, reduce, recycle, rot!


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  1. Wow, what a fun exercise that was! I have a word of caution about drinking from plastic bottles. If they are hard plastic (such as Nalgene’s popular Lexan bottles), there is a dangerous chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA) that leeches into the water and can cause health issues. It’s already been recalled from baby bottles. If the plastic is deformable, there is no BPA in it, but there is still a health concern with bacteria growth. The rule of thumb is not to re-use plastic bottles meant for one-time consumption due to the microorganisms that thrive there, especially if the bottle is exposed to heat such as in a car. All of this is why I recently ditched my old Nalgene bottles and bought some stainless steel bottles from Klean Kanteen and Siig. Camelbak has some nice BPA-free options too.

    Comment by brian — June 24, 2008 #

  2. This was a fun exercise for me, too. What’s also interesting is how much more you could hold if you shaped the bottles into spheres instead of bottles. The surface area of a 1-liter water bottle is (assuming it’s a cylinder with radius 3.5 cm and height 26 cm) about A=2*pi*(3.5 cm)^2 + 2*pi*(3.5 cm)*(26 cm)=649 cm^2. Turn that into a sphere, where A = 4*pi*r^2, and you can get a radius of 7.2 cm, which can hold 1.56 liters. It’s more efficient, but not by enough to make a significant difference.

    Comment by ethan — June 25, 2008 #

  3. The second important note about bottled water is of critical importance, but not in the way you said it. The water being removed from the water cycle is what is in fact causing global warming and the melting of the ice caps, which causes rising sea levels. The easily evaporated fresh water being kept out of the water cycle, at first, caused Earth to warm up. This warming trend caused amounts of ice being kept at the polar regions and on land to begin melting, which Earth did to compensate for the water being kept out of the cycle and in bottles. As the ice melts, cold fresh water is released into the water cycle, and this is why this years winter was so cold. The water being used in the water cycle came from the ice earth melted to compensate for the water we already have bottled. Therefor bottling water to decreased sea level is a ridiculous notion. Thank You. -Ryan Thomas Shinn

    Comment by Ryan Shinn — March 18, 2010 #

  4. If anything we should stop bottling water to reduce sea levels.

    Comment by Ryan Shinn — March 18, 2010 #

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