Photograph by Hannah Whitaker, National Geographic
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A million plastic beverage bottles were purchased each minute as of 2017. The plastic bottle's journey from convenience to curse has played out quickly—in a single generation.

EnvironmentThe Story of Plastic

How the plastic bottle went from miracle container to hated garbage

The evolution of the plastic bottle from amazing to scourge of land and sea has played out inside of a generation.

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

The moment the modern plastic beverage bottle changed the world’s drinking habits is difficult to pinpoint. The day New York supermodels began carrying tall bottles of Evian water as an accessory on fashion show catwalks in the late 1980s surely signaled the future ahead. Billions of bottles were sold on the promise that bottled water is good for hair and skin, healthier than soft drinks and safer than tap water. And it didn’t take consumers long to buy into the notion that they needed water within reach virtually everywhere they went.

What sets bottles apart from other plastic products born in the post-World War II rise of consumerism is the sheer speed with which the beverage bottle, now ubiquitous around the world, has shifted from convenience to curse. The transition played out in a single generation.

“The plastic bottle transformed the beverage industry and it changed our habits in many ways,” says Peter Gleick, co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, and author of Bottled...

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