The World of Sports: Gone and back again

In May of this year, I lost my Hydro Flask water bottle. I spent my days at home hoping that I had left it in my apartment in Los Angeles, but when I got back in August, it was still missing.  

While I was Flaskless, I bought my fair share of aluminum water bottles from Seeds or Starbucks. Each time I grimaced at the fact that I was paying for water, something that I can obtain for free. But I suppose it is the container, not the water, that has real value. 

I would reuse it throughout the day, perhaps extending its usage for another day or two in an effort to avoid purchasing the most essential liquid in sustaining human life. But inevitably, the bottle would become burdensome at some point, and I would toss the skinny metal Smart Water bottle into the recycling. 

Luckily, a few weeks into this semester, I found it tucked away in a cabinet beneath my kitchen sink. I washed it a few times and added it back to the category of things I bring to campus every day, and no longer needed to waste money at Seeds — at least not on water.  

At the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, especially on days as hot as the home opener against Rice, bottled water is in high demand. Something about the combination of drinking beer and standing in the sun makes people crave H2O. Because generally you can’t bring a reusable water bottle into the stadium, there are plastic and aluminum bottles aplenty on game day. 

In April 2022, the University announced that they would end the sale of single-use plastics on campus and in the Coliseum in an effort to be more environmentally conscious — cue the aluminum water bottles that have sprung up almost everywhere on campus. 

“We know that plastics are harmful to the environment, to wildlife and to marine life. And by switching to eco-friendly beverage containers, we’re making a huge difference in protecting the planet, alongside our corporate partners,” President Carol Folt said in a statement announcing the decision. 

There is no doubt that this was a step in the right direction for a more sustainable campus. Mounds of discarded plastic have been found all over the planet’s oceans, and by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastic bottles account for 14 percent of all litter — not just plastic. The raw materials in a plastic water bottle are obtained by fracking, an oil extraction method that accounts for three percent of the amount of methane gas released each year. 

Even though some plastics are recyclable, only five to six percent of plastic used in the U.S. in 2021 was actually recycled, according to a study performed by environmental groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. That’s a three percent decrease from 2018, even as more people have become aware of the importance of sustainability. 

Using aluminum as a water container is a better alternative to plastic bottles, but it costs about 25% to 30%  percent more to produce than plastic. 

So good on USC for switching it up and perhaps spending a bit more in order to provide more sustainable options for people like me who have lost their water bottles. However, how much better is aluminum? 

Aluminum cans or bottles are infinitely recyclable, resulting in 65% of aluminum being recycled in America, compared to plastic’s abysmal five percent. However, the production of an aluminum can release twice the amount of carbon dioxide into the air as the production of a plastic bottle, as it requires using high amounts of electricity and releases perfluorocarbons, which are 9,200 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. So, while using aluminum (or aluminium for my friends from across the pond) is certainly better than plastics, it’s still not ideal. 

Bottled water is a $19 billion industry — it’s not going away. But, with giant budgets for marketing and advertising, surely some of these drink corporations could afford to explore other options. 

Boxed water might be one. The process by which boxed water is made produces half the amount of carbon as aluminum. The boxes used in the process are recyclable, but it certainly isn’t infinite like the recyclability of aluminum. The boxes are lined with aluminum and polyethylene, which are difficult to separate from the paper cartons. Many recyclers won’t bother recycling boxed water because the process doesn’t yield a product that is valuable enough to validate the expense. 

So, when it comes down to it, there really isn’t an ideal way to consume single-use water containers in a sustainable way. Corporations can and will try to find other materials that are less harmful and will certainly exaggerate the benefits of aluminum or paper containers in their marketing campaigns, but maybe the best solution is to find a reusable water bottle or Hydro Flask  and try not to lose it. 

Patrick Warren is a senior and sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “The World of Sports” explores the relationship between sports and climate change and runs every other Wednesday.