Ever heard this? "I don't need to carry my own reusable water bottle. I'll just recycle this disposable one later."
It might sound like a reasonable compromise, but let's not delude ourselves here. Sure, recycling can have a green impact, but it's important to be able to triage one supposedly green action above another. For the skeptical among you, getting lulled into the recycling catch-all can seem like an easy way to be green -- or, in the case of skeptics among us, feel like you're being green. Add to that that it can be easy to confuse greener and green, and it can become quite problematic.
Recycling vs. reuse turns out to be a matter of perception, most of the time. When you think of recycling, you might think of a shiny, efficient factory where old plastic bottles are processed and turned into new bottles at the snap of a finger; old stuff goes in, new stuff comes out, but that's not the whole story; plastic's chemistry, and a couple of other factors, give the reusable water bottle (and other objects with similar lifecycle designs) a big edge. In short, there's a reason that it's Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle.
How Plastic Recycling Works
Let's take a look at how plastic recycling works. First, we have to consider where the plastic bottle comes from to begin with. It should surprise no one that plastic is a petroleum product, a non-renewable resource; once the oil gets used to make that plastic, that's pretty much all it will ever be -- there's no going back. When it comes time to recycle it, and you drop it in the blue bin and forget about it, but that's just the beginning. Recycling involves essentially re-melting and re-casting the plastic. Though, manufacturing new plastic from recycled plastic requires two-thirds of the energy used in virgin plastic manufacturing, recycled plastic isn't often used for the same products over and over again.
But, as any chef who has ever tried to re-heat a Hollondaise sauce will tell you, the quality isn't quite as good the second time around; the same goes for plastic. Plastic is made from a series of polymer chains -- you might remember the term from high school chemistry -- and those polymer chains (learn more about them from Wikipedia) often break during the heating and melting process of recycling. What does this mean to you? Plastic is often downcycled as it is recycled, leading to a lower and lower-grade product; eventually, all it's good for is as another space hog in the landfill. And that ain't green, no matter how you look at it.
How Reusing Plastic Bottles (and Other Stuff) Works
Contrast that with reusable water bottle model: You get one (if you prefer plastic, BPA-free, please) and haul it around with you. Enjoy bottle after bottle of fresh, clean, delicious tap water, while cosidering this number: Tap water has less than one percent of the environmental impact of bottled water. Recycling, and bottled water, and most everything else on the planet, does not exist in a vaccuum; that is to say, it is totally unreasonable to just compare the vessels and leave the contents (and everything else associated with them) out of the equation. There really are a million reasons to ditch bottled water.
Bottled water can be a little tricky to avoid entirely, but there's no reason to use it every day, and no reason to think that you can simply recycle your way out of disposability. All of our stuff has to go somewhere, so it's best to keep as much of it with you for as many cycles as possible.