EARTH TALK: Plastic Water Bottles & Roadside Solar-Powered Signs

EARTH TALK: From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I know there's a big debate now as to why we need bottled water at all, but is anyone addressing the incredible waste of plastic bottles by this industry? -- Bert B., Dubuque, Iowa

Water bottles are not subject to the bottle bill laws that have mandated return deposits and kept billions of plastic soda containers out of the waste stream. The Container Recycling Institute says that if bottled water were covered under just the 11 state bottle bills currently granting five- to 10-cent refunds on returned soda bottles, the wasting rate could drop threefold or more nationally. (Photo: Cayusa, courtesy Flickr)

The plastic waste spawned by the recent astronomical growth in the bottled water business is significant. Environmentalists especially decry it because the water from our taps is usually as good as if not better quality than what's inside the bottle (and indeed sometimes bottled water is just tap water). Further, water bottles are not subject to the bottle bill laws that have kept billions of soda containers-made from the exact same petroleum-derived PET plastic packaging-out of our bursting landfills.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a Washington, DC-based non-profit committed to increasing the recycling of beverage containers of all kinds, sales of non-alcohol non-carbonated drinks-bottled water as well as energy and sports drinks-will likely surpass soda sales in the U.S. by 2010. More than seven times as much non-carbonated bottled water is sold annually in the U.S. than just a decade ago.

The fact that more Americans are switching over from unhealthy soda to water is a positive health trend, but reliance on bottled rather than tap water means that the environment is taking a big hit. CRI's analysis shows that Americans have never recycled as much PET as in recent years. However, the sheer increase in bottled water sales means that even more of the material is going un-recycled than ever before. CRI says that if bottled water were covered under just the 11 state bottle bills currently granting five- to 10-cent refunds on returned soda bottles, the PET wasting rate could drop threefold or more nationally.

Besides being less wasteful, cutting back on the need to manufacture more plastic bottles from non-recycled (virgin) materials would also have a noticeable impact on America's carbon footprint. CRI estimates that some 18 million barrels of crude oil equivalent were consumed in 2005 to replace the two million tons of PET bottles that were wasted instead of recycled. Some other negative environmental impacts of making more and more PET from virgin petroleum sources include damage to wildlife and marine life, air and water pollution, and greater burdens on already stressed landfills and incinerators.

CRI and others are working to get policymakers at both state and federal levels to mandate increased recycling for water bottles. Oregon is the first state to update its bottle bill-the first in the nation when it was enacted back in 1971-to include a five-cent refund on PET water bottles beginning in January 2009.

And just this past November, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey introduced a bill on Capitol Hill calling for the creation of a federal bottle bill mandating a five-cent refund on all beverage containers-including water bottles. Entitled The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act, the bill is now with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for review, and may come up for a vote this year.

Environmentalists are not optimistic, however, that such a bill can pass, given how influential the beverage industry is in protecting its interests, which include keeping the base price of its products like bottled water as low as possible, regardless of the availability of an after-purchase refund.

CONTACTS: Container Recycling Institute, ; The Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act,

Dear EarthTalk: I notice occasional solar panels on roadsides, powering individual streetlamps or signs. Is any research being done to expand on this idea and implant solar collectors in roads, parking lots or sidewalks to generate power in a similar but bigger way? -- Emily Eidenier, via e-mail

A roadside solar-powered sign in Houston, Texas. Civil engineers are working on ways to embed solar collectors in road surfaces themselves, to provide power for de-icing roads in winter and to supply current to local buildings. Caltech solar energy expert Nate Lewis says that covering just 1.7 percent of continental U.S. land surface with photovoltaic solar collectors could produce enough power to meet the nations total electricity demand. (Photo: Zelda Go Wild, courtesy Flickr)
The concept of using road surfaces to generate clean solar power is actually already moving beyond the idea stage. Roads absorb heat from the sun every day and are usually free of sightline obstructions that could otherwise block the transmission of light rays. And if the roads built for cars and driving are partly to blame for global warming, why not make them part of the solution too?

Idaho-based company Solar Roadways is one of the trailblazers. Electrical engineer Scott Brusaw was inspired to start the company when he heard Caltech solar energy expert Nate Lewis suggest that covering just 1.7 percent of continental U.S. land surface with photovoltaic solar collectors could produce enough power to meet the nation's total energy demand.

Brusaw put two and two together when he realized that the interstate highway system already covers about that much of the nation's land surface, so he got to work designing a system that combines a durable and translucent glass road surface with photovoltaic solar collectors that could be wired directly into the electricity grid. Brusaw's innovative design would also heat the roads in winter, thus providing a important safety benefit.

With improvements in the efficiency of solar collectors in recent years, Brusaw believes his system, if implemented from coast-to-coast in place of the tarmac on existing highways, could produce enough energy to meet the entire world's electricity needs.

But skeptics wonder whether such an expensive high-tech road surface can stand up to the rigors of everyday use-from overloaded 18-wheelers putting extra stress on the highway to oil spills seeping into expensive electronic circuitry-without having to be replaced or repaired often. Brusaw acknowledges that his system still needs fine-tuning, but in the meantime is developing a working prototype along a 45-mile stretch of road between the Idaho cities of Coeur D'Alene and Sandpoint.

Europeans are also pioneering ways to use the sun's rays to work as they beat down on roadways. The British firm Astucia has developed a road stud that contains small solar panels and emits LED light to illuminate dark roadways. On the 120 U.K. roads where the new studs have been installed, night-time accidents are down some 70 percent.

And the Dutch firm Ooms Avenhorn Holding BV has developed a way to siphon solar heat from asphalt road surfaces and use it to de-ice roads and help power nearby buildings. A latticework of pipes under the road surface allows water to heat up during warm weather. The water is then pumped deep under ground where it maintains its higher temperatures and can be retrieved months later to keep road surfaces ice-free during winter months. Apartment buildings, industrial parks and an air force base have benefited from the innovation, and the firm is working on exporting its system to other countries in the coming years.

CONTACTS: Solar Roadways, ; Astucia, ; Ooms Avenhorn Holding BV,

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail: earthtalk (at)

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