Thicker Than Water

Nalgenes and ethical consumerism

by Norman Lewis; illustration by Emma Kearney

Your Nalgene (I’m safely assuming you have a Nalgene or Camelbak) is, as you know, made of plastic. But beyond that one word, you likely don’t know what your water bottle is made of. In one sense, your Nalgene’s journey begins about 160 million years ago, when countless microscopic plankton died and fell to the seafloor. There they were slowly buried under layers of sediment and pressurized until they turned into crude oil.

That crude oil was extracted a few years ago in Russia or Saudi Arabia and shipped to an oil refinery, where it underwent distillation processes that involve such obscure words as “naphtha” and “coking.” Eventually, the 4 percent of any oil extraction that’s used for plastics likely made its way to Tennessee, where Eastman Chemical Company used polymerization and thermosetting (don’t ask) to create tiny plastic pellets. Then, Eastman used blow moldings to melt, shape and solidify those pellets into the water bottle you love so much. By the way, Eastman Chemical Company, which creates all the plastic used in Nalgene water bottles, ranked 12th in 2013 in the Top 100 Toxic Air Polluters in the United States.

This whole process is at once beautiful and terrifying in its complexity. No one person—not even one company—is capable of creating and selling a Nalgene from the beginning to the end of the process. Thousands of people at different times, in different parts of the world, worked independently to create your Nalgene. The manufacturing process is complex for most products we use, but the process is especially complicated in the creation of plastic. Plastic is, in fact, an excellent example of the power of the market. Market-made products are finished only after having taken many different forms and after having traveled to a slew of different places around the world during the manufacturing processes. The plastic industry is so complicated that no one person outside of the process could possibly fully trace the product’s creation. And yet, plastic products end up in your hands at only a small cost. This seemingly magical process is to thank for the betterment of billions of lives. The capitalist market—like it or not—deserves credit for allowing nearly a billion people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty in the past 20 years. But these systems have also brought about a plastic world: a world where we consume products with unknowable origins.

What is remarkable about plastic should also terrify us: we can’t know where it’s from or how it’s made. It might be impossible to ethically consume plastic because of the incredible length and complexity of its production process. I nevertheless spent a daunting number of hours trying to figure out how Nalgenes are made because so many Colorado College students appear to care about the products they consume, and rightly so: every time we decide to buy a product, we also decide to support whomever made that product. That’s why so many CC students prefer to eat locally and organically and to drink fair-trade coffee when given the choice. When we consume things we know were made responsibly, we engage in ethical consumerism.

We must remember that ethical consumerism is a luxury. Most people can’t afford to worry too much about where their products come from. Even so, ethical consumerism has the potential to have enormous influence on the world because consumers collectively dictate what sells and what is made in the first place.

For example, in 1989, Richard Leaky became the head of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD) of Kenya. In that position, he acquired millions of dollars worth of ivory (elephant tusk). Instead of selling the ivory and using the money for further conservation efforts as his advisors suggested, Leaky ordered an enormous tower of ivory to be built just so that it could be burned. The burning tower attracted huge international attention. The market for ivory and elephant poaching plummeted in the following years because people realized what a terrible industry they were supporting by purchasing ivory products.

That is the power consumers have. Perhaps this means that consumers bear a moral responsibility to consume ethically. This example shows that consumers can be made to take ethics into account as they decide to buy or not buy products. Every purchase we make is a vote. They are votes that only the affluent can afford to make, but they are votes nonetheless.

All this is not to say that ethical consumerism, or just learning about what we consume, is enough to significantly support causes like environmentalism. Ethical consumerism, no matter how hard we try, is no substitute for spending time, effort and money on causes that matter.

Even so, how we consume might be a better measure of the causes we care about than how we talk. What we consume reveals just how much comfort we are willing to give up in the name of what matters to us. For example, if we claim to care deeply about the environment but we continue to consume oil carelessly, we must not actually care very much.

I’m not suggesting you get rid of your Nalgene. After all, a Nalgene is an obviously better alternative to a single-use plastic water bottle. And, perhaps more importantly, how would people know you’re unique if they couldn’t see your personal sticker-adorned Nalgene all the time?

We can’t possibly become uniformly ethical consumers. We are all, by virtue of owning products necessary for a modern life, playing into systems that we don’t want to support. What’s worse is that by purchasing our Nalgene water bottles, we aremaking ostensibly responsible purchases by opting for a bottle more permanent than single-use water bottles. But Nalgenes, as we now know, are made from unethically produced plastic. Clearly, we cannot consume ethically all the time. But the least we can do is recognize our own inability to consume ethically.

So the next time any of us is sitting at the Preserve fawning over local, organic, non-GMO kale, we should recall that nearly everything else we are consuming—including the Nalgenes out of which we drink—was not created in such a responsible fashion. Beyond acknowledging this truth, we could all stand to learn about those other products we consume. That way, at least we will know where our votes are going