After decades of successfully convincing the public to spend billions of dollars on an essential resource that flows freely out of any tap, the bottled industry is finally losing steam. Many Canadian cities have introduced limited bans on bottled water in schools and municipal property, and London, Ontario recently announced a complete ban on bottled water within the city’s limits. Scores of others – including Vancouver, Halifax, and Toronto – began eyeing similar legislation, and it’s time for Montreal to do the same. As an environmentalist and socially conscious student – and thanks to McGill’s tuition and fees, a financially conscious one – I find the issue of bottled water deeply troubling, for reasons ranging from the source to the trash.
The first problem with bottled water is the bottles themselves, including their production, transportation, and even the effects of recycling them. Recyc-Quebec spokesperson Richard Goulet’s suggestion that Montreal introduce a deposit-based recycling program – which has been found to increase recycling rates – is nice, but it does not address the significant impacts that bulk water transport and production have on the air and regional water cycles. Further, the production of these bottles uses Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – a non-renewable resource that, when produced, releases toxic chemicals cited as a cause of global warming and acid rain.
Despite the Canadian Bottled Water Association’s assertion that different legislation does not affect quality control, bottled water testing contradicts this. When Coca-Cola first released its Dasani product in the U.K., 500,000 bottles were recalled after traces of Bromate, a carcinogen, were found at twice the limit of E.U. standards.
However, when Canada’s Natural Resources Defense Council tested 1,000 bottles from 103 brands of bottled water in 1999, the Council found that one quarter of them violated federal bottled water standards with high levels of harmful contaminants.
Coupling this with ever-growing warnings from the scientific community on the risks of plastic use in food storage and the infrequent government inspections of bottled water plants – on average every three or four years in Canada – leads one to question the public perception of bottled water as a safer and healthier alternative to tap water. In addition, standard water bottles are made with plastic No.1, meaning these bastions of anti-sustainability are only intended for a single use.
Unfortunately, Canada has very little regulation on its water resources, and unlike natural resources such as wood or coal, the bottled water industry does not pay an additional tax to draw public water. Companies like Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani, take as much as they want while paying the same tax – sometimes even less – than individual consumers. No control measure exists to ensure the stability of natural aquifers or that municipal sources are not drawn upon too heavily, as Coke has been known to do in drought-prone farming areas of the U.S. [and India]
Corporations then sell this water at 240 to 10,000 times the cost of the water they used, reaping sales of more than $650-million in Canada alone in 2005, thanks in large part to their ability to market bottled water as essential and superior to tap water – a highly deceitful move.
Canada should realize its need for a firm national water policy and increased water infrastructure. It should deny corporations the ability to sell what is not only a valuable natural resource that needs protection, but a resource to which access should be qualified as a human right.
Bottled water has gone unnoticed on our campus and Canadian politics for too long, especially considering its extremely negative impact on our environment, its potential health risks, and its exorbitantly inflated price. If anything could avoid commodification, water should be it. Instead of waiting for Montreal to join other Canadian cities in banning bottled water, students should start demanding a ban on bottled water sales on campus.
This article originally appeared in the McGill Daily and is reprinted with the author's permission. Dana Holtby is a McGill Environment & Development student and a member of Tap Drinkers Against Privatization (TAPthirst). See also Inside the Bottle.