The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

October 25, 2007

Think outside the Biota bottle

Marika sent me an e-mail a few days ago asking what I thought of the new Biota water, which is the first water bottled in a compostable corn-based bottle. This issue is probably moot because according to Biota’s site, the company is out of business, having been “stomped To Death By UPS Capital, A Division of United Parcel Service, one of the World’s Largest contributors to Global Warming.” However, a note at the bottom of this announcement suggests that Biota water may be granted a second life, and if not Biota, surely another company will takes its place. So I think it’s important for me to explain why I would not buy this “planet friendly” beverage which was all the rage at the 79th ACADEMY AWARDS and was even chosen as a sponsor for the Hollywood Premiere of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

According to the company, what makes Biota so green is its bottle. It’s made from NatureWorks PLA, a plastic derived from corn. It’s compostable at high temperatures. And according to Biota, “The containers are made from corn, the contents are used by the consumer, then the container is turned into compost, to feed the corn.”

While it may be true that the container can be turned into compost, I doubt it’s feeding much of the corn. NatureWorks PLA is a joint venture between Cargill (one of the world’s largest processors of corn into such lovelies as high fructose corn syrup and other food additives that kill humans slowly, as well as corn-based feed for cattle, that kills cattle slowly since their stomachs did not evolve to process corn) and Dow Chemical (producer of fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, soil fumigants, genetically-modified seeds, and a host of other agricultural chemicals.) According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in this NY Times opinion piece about corn-based ethanol:

The way we grow corn in this country consumes tremendous quantities of fossil fuel. Corn receives more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop, and that fertilizer is made from fossil fuels — mostly natural gas. Corn also receives more pesticide than any other crop, and most of that pesticide is made from petroleum. To plow or disc the cornfields, plant the seed, spray the corn and harvest it takes large amounts of diesel fuel, and to dry the corn after harvest requires natural gas. So by the time your “green” raw material arrives at the ethanol plant, it is already drenched in fossil fuel. Every bushel of corn grown in America has consumed the equivalent of between a third and a half gallon of gasoline.

So right off the bat, I’m not a huge fan of NatureWorks’s corn-based plastic. But even if the bottles were made from organic corn or some other plant source, I wouldn’t buy Biota bottled water. Why? Because the company would still be using energy and resources to create packaging for something that runs cheaply and cleanly from my faucet. I live in California. Think of all the energy used not only to bottle but also to ship that water to me from Colorado. Think how much lower our impact would be on the planet if least packaging and shortest travel distances were our priorities in making purchasing decisions.

If the clean water that comes into our homes is picking up contaminants from old pipes, we can filter it at the faucet. Buying filter cartridges once or even a few times a year is going to require fewer resources than buying bottled water every day or week. And some people feel their tap water is so good they don’t need any filter at all.

And finally, aside from all the environmental issues here, I wouldn’t buy Biota or any other bottled water because, as I’ve learned from the Think Outside The Bottle Campaign, clean drinking water is a human right that should not be privatized. We need to support our local tap water. If we don’t make it a priority, our leaders will not make its quality a priority either, and our public water infrastructure will suffer.

So come on, Marika, and anyone else who hasn’t done it yet. (And by the way, I’m not picking on Marika. She makes the best cupcakes in the entire world, so I’d never do anything to make her mad!) Take the pledge! I’m going to be pounding the pavement this weekend with pledge forms for my neighbors to sign. But you can do it easily online. You’ll be glad you did!

10/26/07 Update: Here is an excellent and comprehensive article about the bottled water issue throughout the country:

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13 years ago

is boita water out of bussness or not?

16 years ago

If you compost plastic-coated cardboard or paper, you end up with little pieces of plastic in your compost.

I assume there is some plastic in my compost that is degraded to invisibility, as well. But because we put shredded cardboards & junk mail in our compost, we get little plastic shreds in a variety or thicknesses.

16 years ago

Thankyou Beth and Reijn for giving your opinions… I am in Canberra, Australia. I remember glass milk bottles about 20 years ago, but haven’t seen them since. Unfortunately the dairy industry here is, well, an industry, I don’t think any dairies package their own milk, and certainly not in glass.
I only found out about 6 months ago that it was plastic, not wax, on those cartons and it made me feel rather ill. I wonder if different recycling companies deal with them differently? I’m going to find out…!

Rejin L
16 years ago

All things being equal, I’d go with the packaging that uses one kind of material. As I understand it, since cartons have paper and plastic layered together, this makes them harder to recycle. They get picked up for recycling around here, but honestly I wonder what becomes of them.
Things aren’t always equal, though. We buy organic milk for my son, and it is only available locally in cartons. Glass would be the best option, but is hardly used for milk anymore.

Beth Terry
16 years ago

Mazzajo, this is the million dollar question, isn’t it? In fact, I just brought it up last night at my Rethinking Plastics class and could not get a good answer because I don’t think there really is one!

Do you have a local dairy that sells milk in reusable refillable glass bottles? Where are you located?

If not, I guess I’d go for the one with the least plastic, the cardboard carton. But even there I wonder if that’s the right answer. If you compost them, what happens to the plastic? Does it stay in the compost? That can’t be good. If you recycle them, what happens to the plastic?

Anyone else want to weigh in on this?

16 years ago

Beth & everyone I have a question about plastic bottles (but for milk, not water). Thanks to your blog I feel I have most plastic dilemmas covered except for this one:
Which is more recyclable – plastic bottles or tetrapak milk cartons (which, I gather, have at least one or two plastic layers)? How can they be recycled if the paper pulp and the plastic can’t be separated? How can they be compostable if they’re not completely organic? I’ve tried researching on the web, but am still very confused about this one.

Lise Mahnke
16 years ago

I think more fertilizer is used per square foot on lawns than is used to grow corn. Homeowners use much higher rates of fertilizer than agriculture does–agriculture can’t afford to use chemicals at the high rates used for landscapes.

16 years ago

Corn production is sure no free ride environmentally. In the NY Times today under the headline, UN Warns of Rapid Decay of Environment it said, “persistent problems include the rapid rise of ‘dead zones’ where marine life can no longer be supported because pollutants like runoff fertilizers deplete oxygen.’ One of the biggest is in the Gulf of Mexico where the fertilizer laden Mississippi empties. Mother Nature is almost screaming at us – THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH! So, let’s head for the tap. Virtually free, sanitary water available at the turn of a faucet and people shun it to pay high prices for essentially the same thing, an incredible achievement of marketing.

16 years ago

im not sure whether i should be proud for the shout out or not! and ps…i havent even started reading your book yet. my focus has been nonexistant at this point! i think im going to try and start it this weekend, but dont kill me if it takes awhile to get done! also…if there’s a book you want to read of mine i’d be more than happy to loan you something in exchange…we have about a billion books. AND..i made some awesome donuts last night and brought them in. i think you should come visit me EVERY friday just to say HI and to be one of my test kitchen eaters.

16 years ago

Ah, local vs. organic/ biodegradable. I’m with you there. The cost (environmental and $$) of manufacturing and shipping offsets the benefits of the corn-based bottle.

Rejin L
16 years ago

Hi Beth,
When I mentioned to one of my coworkers that I wanted to start a no bottled water campaign at the school, she mentioned the corn based bottles too. She seemed to think they were more widespread than one defunct company. But I wasn’t convinced, for all the reasons you mentioned, plus because the lack of industrial composting facilities (almost anywhere in the world except San Francisco) mean that, like bio-bags, they would still end up as litter or landfill or garbage patch in the ocean. Bio bottles are just another example of a techno fix, a product we don’t need to replace a product we don’t need.