The temporary solution to the lead-tainted water emergency in Flint, Michigan — using only bottled water — is creating yet another dilemma for a city already in the throes of a major environmental disaster.
"We have this influx of plastic coming into our community," said Kris Thiel, vice president of Young's Environmental Cleanup, a private hazardous waste hauling company that has donated four large recycling receptacles to Flint. In less than 24 hours, one of the bins filled up with a whopping 680 pounds of empty water bottles, Thiel told NBC News.
The bins are filling up faster than the city can empty them — especially since only a sliver of residents are signed up for curbside recycling, according to Michigan Public Radio.
But Young's Environmental, along with other cleanup contractors, are trying to keep up in the hopes that the bottles don't end up in city landfills, where they say it takes as many as 450 years for one plastic bottle completely degrade.
Since officials acknowledged that pipes are leaching lead into the city's drinking supply, millions of bottles of water have been donated to Flint's 102,000 residents. Puff Daddy and Mark Wahlberg donated a million bottles on Monday, and other celebrities, including the members of Pearl Jam and the Detroit Lions, have sent hundreds of thousands of bottles, too.
The bottled water is a stopgap solution for Flint, which has been exposing its residents to unsafe amounts of lead since a state-appointed manager switched the water supply to the Flint River. Concern is particularly high for the 9,000 Flint children exposed to lead as a result of the cost-cutting measure: Lead can lower IQ and cause behavioral problems at low levels, and damage kidneys or cause seizures or death at high levels in children.
But the bottles are raising fears of long-term pollution.
"We definitely want to encourage everyone to recycle the bottles rather than place them in the trash," Jennifer Eldridge, a spokeswoman for Republic Services, which provides trash and recycle services to Flint, told The Flint Journal.
In a plea on Wednesday, Flint native Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, asked people to stop sending bottled water.
"You would have to send 200 bottles a day, per person," he wrote on his website. "That’s 102,000 citizens times 200 bottles of water – which equals 20.4 million16oz. bottles of water per day, every day, for the next year or two until this problem is fixed (oh, and we’ll need to find a landfill in Flint big enough for all those hundreds of millions of plastic water bottles, thus degrading the local environment even further)."
The Flint area has three local landfills, Thiel said.
"Landfill space is somewhat limited," he said. "Whether it's your milk jug or a water bottle or a newspaper, you should recycle."