Bottles Stretched Around the World

(Disclaimer: I am bad at maths. If these calculations are faulty please feel free to leave me a comment letting me know what a dummy I am.)

I caught an ad for Brita water filters recently which said you should buy a Brita filter because it will reduce the number of empty bottles you will throw away over the course of a year.

I tend to find claims like this dubious at best, but Brita gave us some numbers to work with. They claim that American drink enough bottled water every year that they could stretch around the world over 100 times. They further claim that if you buy a Brita water filter you can reduce that number of bottles by 300.

The commercial showed an endless row of empty bottles stretched across otherwise pristine natural landscapes, implying that your bottled water consumption leads directly to the polution of lush forests and live-giving rivers. It was difficult to tell whether the bottles were laying side-to-side or end-to-end.

I didn’t have a water bottle handy, so I measured a 20 oz. Pepsi instead. Water bottles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, so this probably won’t affect the calculations much; a standard 20 oz. bottle is a good rough average. Coca-cola’s bottled water product Dasani does, as far as I know, come in a standard 20 oz. bottle.

My Mountain Dew bottle was ≈8.5 inches tall with the cap on, and ≈2.6 inches wide at the widest part. Of course in real life a discarded plastic bottle wouldn’t take up nearly that much space, because they can be crushed to a small fraction of their regular size… but the commercial showed whole, un-crushed bottles. I believe they were trying to illustrate the number of empty bottles, rather than the amount of space they would take up in a landfill.

The mean circumference of the Earth at the equator is ≈24,880.6 miles. So:

(bottles laid side-to-side)
4.6 bottles per foot = 24,288 bottles per mile = 604,300,012.8 bottles per Earth = 61,034,301,292.8 bottles per 101 Earths.

Do you believe Americans drink 61 billion bottles of water every year? That breaks down to ≈197 bottles of water for every man, woman and child in the US every year, or about one bottle per person every two days.

(bottles laid end-to-end)
1.41 bottles per foot = 7444.8 bottles per mile = 185,231,090.88 bottles per Earth = 18,708,340,178.88 bottles per 101 Earths.

18.7 billion bottles works out to ≈60.6 bottles per American per year, or about one bottle per person every six days.

How many water filters does Brita have to sell in order to eliminate this plastic-y blight on our existence? They didn’t specify whether a filter was good for one person or one household, but they did make it clear that buying on means you can keep 300 bottles per year from clogging up our lush forests etc. So:

(bottles laid side-to-side)
61,034,301,292.8 / 300 ≈ 203,447,671 filters required.

(bottles laid end-to-end)
18,708,340,178.88 / 300 ≈ 62,361,134 filters required.

So by buying a Brita water filter, your actual impact on the endless march of empty water bottles is considerably less than 1% of 1% of 1%.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy a Brita water filter based on this data, even if it’s all accurate. (You shouldn’t buy one, but that’s not the reason.) I’m saying that the “go green” angle of this particular commercial is a mite disingenuous given two key points:

  1. Measuring the impact empty bottles have on our environment isn’t as easy as simply counting the bottles; you have to measure the actual space taken up. Most of the volume of an empty bottle is just air. Similarly you currently have about 26 feet of intestines in your gut, but that doesn’t mean you have to be 26 feet tall to hold them all in.
  2. Purchasing a Brita water filter for your family does virtually nothing to reduce the total number of bottles anyway. If you’re worried about where your plastic bottles end up, you could store considerably more than 300 of them in your garage if you so chose, where you could prevent them from escaping into the wilderness.

Want to reduce your bottle consumption? Purchase a re-usable bottle. Then, if you’re worried about the environment, donate the remaining $18 to the environmentalist group of your choice.

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17 comments to Bottles Stretched Around the World

  • AndVon

    Sorry, Brickroad, it gets worse. At the bottom of the commercal, in fine print, it reads “based on a 16.9 oz bottle”
    I don’t have one on hand, so I can’t calculate it for you, but I’ve seen coke produce smaller bottles that size for scale, so I’m not surprised if water companies do the same. Either way, the math makes the concept a bit ridiculous.

  • Merus

    About the only reason I can see for buying a water filter is because you don’t like the taste of tap water. Most filters preserve fluoride these days.

  • dtsund

    And so it was today that Brickroad learned about Fermi problems.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_problem

  • SpecBebop

    Brick, I’d like to hear your additional thoughts on why you shouldn’t buy a Brita water filter.

  • Trevor Haley

    Thank you. I have purchased a reusable bottle and I normally will just drink tap water… It hasn’t hurt me so far and I like the taste of it… Most of the time :0

  • Brilliant!

    I’m doing a little article on my new Klean Kanteens for my monthly edition. I couldn’t bother to do the math on this, but the skeptic in me really wished my inner-mathematician would’ve payed attention in class.

    Thanks for running the numbers; I’m linking to you.

  • Chris

    Why do you think we shouldn’t use a Brita? Don’t you think those using a Brita use a reusable bottle anyway? Don’t these concepts go hand in hand?

  • elizabeth

    Is Brita trying to sell filters, yes, but the point remains that Americans (alone) use a vast amount of plastic bottles that are comprised of materials that don’t break down quickly, but stay with us (whether in our garage or in the ocean or a vacant lot)a long, long time. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Your observation that “most of the volume of an empty bottle is just air” misses the point (not only that, but the example isn’t using volume as the measurement; pictorially it’s using length). The message is: Stop buying things (water, etc.) in plastic bottles! …as much as possible, as much is reasonable; it’s all any of us can do. Fight the Bottle: http://www.aroundtheamericas.org/log/tag/floating-debris/

  • Nate

    A point I would like to make is that plastic water bottles (I don’t like them, but they aren’t going to go away soon) can be recycled and Brita filters can’t. How much space are these extra filters going to take up in the landfills?

  • Michael Young

    Nate makes a good point. The claim is that “Americans drink enough bottled water every year that they could stretch around the world over 100 times.” Well ok. So if 100% of us switched to using Brita filters, if we lay those spent Brita filters end-to-end, how many times can we stretch used-up Brita filters around the world? Also, Brita filters are constructed with heavy plastic and (as Nate points out), can’t be recycled at all. Sounds like Brita’s Eco-Challenge is bullshit (gasp). Brita trying to cash in on a real problem… by making themselves part of the problem (wow, how corporate of them).

  • Nitsi

    Thank you for trying to figure this one out. I was quite thrown by the stats that they seem to put out. It is quite a claim.
    Hence did a google search to see if anyone else felt the same too. It does sound a little far fetched to me, especially since I think i heard that the bottles used go round the earth 190 times!! (hope I heard that right).
    Am not against using less plastic, in fact would advocate it whole heartedly, but these ads at the least need to make their facts sound believeable.

  • elvis

    who cares if they exaggerated…is everyone missing the main point here…recycle…recycle as much as you can…i recycle everything i get my hands on…it is correct that plastic isn’t going anywhere…but you can certainly use less of it….Brita has teamed up with Preserve, a leading maker of 100 percent recycled household consumer goods, to collect and recycle Brita filters…Preserve’s Gimme 5 Program will transform the plastic from pitcher and bottle filters into new Preserve products…remember everyone…there are major garbage patches floating in most of our major oceans around the world…the one in the pacific is about the size of two state’s of texas…and yea, try to use the same drinking water bottle over and over again, preferably stainless steel…and there are filters out there that last for at least a year…do the least amount of impact on the environment if you can…more and more people are starting to understand the impact that plastic has on our planet…why aren’t more people conscious of their waste and do something about it…my guess is they are lazy…

  • tomd

    Everytime I see that Britta commercial I wonder how many recycled water bottles it would take to make a disposable britta filter? Those empty water bottles do not weigh all that much. Any of you math guys wanna figure out the weight of the water bottles and find out how much in plastic the filter is made out of?

  • Useful info. Fortunate me I discovered your website unintentionally, and I’m surprised why this accident did not happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

  • David

    One thing I think everyone missed is the term “stretched”. By heating the plastic material to the right temperature I think the distance could be quite a bit more for even one bottle. I don’t know the facts but just thought i would put in my recyclable 2 cents worth

  • PK

    A Britta filter lasts 2 months and is little smaller than a roll of dimes. My son was going through bottle water like it was free and had no impact on the envirnoment. Do the math!