Plastic water bottles are cramming landfills and maybe even leaching chemicals. Why are we so attracted to water that costs more per litre than gasoline?
Think about where your drinking water comes from. No, this isn’t one of those stories about protecting our rivers and streams from greedy foreigners or power plant developers. It’s about protecting ourselves from a marketing behemoth that’s playing Godzilla with the way we think about drinking water.
At least, that’s one side of it.
It’s also a story that might get you thinking if you’re a regular consumer of bottled water — and you probably are. Canadians buy a billion bottles of water every year. Considering that it takes three litres of water for the production of a single plastic, one-litre bottle, the whole process seems counterproductive. But we’re jumping ahead here a bit.
Think, for a moment, where all that bottled water you see lining rows of grocery store shelves has come from. Likely it has travelled a great distance and has been kept for long periods at high temperatures — in warehouses, in trucks, sitting on pallets in the sun waiting to be loaded. We’ve been warned about the leaching of toxins from plastic bottles. Remember the BPA scare a couple of years ago? Polycarbonate baby bottles containing bisphenol A (BPA) — linked to neural development and rumoured to be cancer causing — forced the feds to ban their import, sale, and advertising.
The plastic of consumer water bottles isn’t killing anyone, but there are mounting concerns about what might end up in the water if the bottles outlive their shelf life: namely bacteria and toxins accumulating during the lag times that can occur after the water is bottled and before the cap is unscrewed. However, it’s only in recent months that studies have been undertaken to see whether that claim is accurate.
The single-serving, soft-plastic water bottles are known as PET bottles because they’re made of polyethylene terephthalate, which, over time, is suspected of leaching toxic chemicals like antimony. A study by Dr. William Shotyk, the Canadian director of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Heidelberg, found antimony in 132 brands of water in PET bottles stored for six months. Scientists have urged consumers never to refill the PET bottles because of possible health risks but, without data from long-term studies, some measure of the potential volatility isn’t precise.
The whiff of panic has prompted a Return-to-the-Taps movement with advocates steering consumers away from the bottle and to the tap water their taxes pay for. There are even bottled water bans springing up in municipalities, schools, and businesses. But the executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA), speaking for 100 manufacturers from multinationals like Nestlé to mom and pop operators, complains that the standoff between bottled water and tap water is misdirected.
“It’s a recycling issue,” says Elizabeth Griswold. “We are not the problem. By banning bottled water, the problem will not go away.”
She dismisses the claims of health concerns over bottled water as invalid. “It certainly gets your attention and makes great headlines, but it’s an urban myth that has originated on the Internet. There is scientific data that supports the safety of the PET and polycarbonate bottles.”
Tale of the tap
Christi Howes is a single mother who relies on bottled water. It’s not that she shuns tap water but prefers to pick up five-gallon jugs every couple of weeks. “It’s supposed to be better for you and when we moved in [to our home], we didn’t know what the state of our pipes were.”
Howes isn’t alone in believing that bottled water is safer and cleaner than tap water. If it’s in a bottle with a sealed lid, it must have some distinct virtue that sets it apart from tap water. There’s a perception that bottled water is the purest of all liquids. However, many of the leading brands, like Aquafina and Dasani, are sourced from tap water. Is there anything wrong with this? Essentially no, as long as the consumer understands they’re paying a premium for tap water.
But here’s the rub. Why do we crave bottled water, when, in the great majority of cases, it is tap water? And, it’s tap water from some other municipality’s tap.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, the region’s chief medical health officer, calls Victoria’s water, straight from the tap, amongst the best in the world. “From source to tap, we’ve pretty well instituted as many measures as we can to give the public a level of confidence. And, a colleague once said to me, ‘What else gets delivered to your door for pennies a ton?’”
Sooke Reservoir is a protected watershed with the surrounding land owned by the CRD. That means no farms, no industrial activity, and no toilets flushing into our drinking water. “We don’t have the contaminants you see in other parts of the country,” says Jack Hull, the CRD’s general manager of water services.
Victoria’s water is pretty clean to start with but gets additionally disinfected using ultraviolet light to eliminate any parasites that may be lurking. That’s followed by chlorine, which kills any leftover bacteria, and, finally, ammonia is added, forming a long-lasting disinfectant called chloramine. Hull says that takes care of the risk of any bacteria growing in the water pipes. “The bottom line is our water is very safe to drink.”
University of Victoria-based aquatic ecologist Dr. Asit Mazumder agrees that Victoria has terrific water, but the situation at Shawnigan Lake is vastly different. The septic fields on homes that surround the lake are leaching human material. Mazumder’s findings in Shawnigan Lake drinking water include caffeine.
“If we’re finding caffeine, then fecal materials are probably leaching into the water. We’re finding the medications people are taking and that’s being pumped back into the water.” Mazumder has repeatedly raised the point with the province, but there’s been no action.
Securing the ’shed
Protecting the quality of tap water at its source is more important than treating the water. It’s a directive Victoria’s founding fathers followed a century ago, ensuring that the lands surrounding the Sooke Reservoir were purchased and protected. Mazumder says while the water industry is fixated on treating their resource with filters and additives, clean and healthy water doesn’t exist without first minding the environment. An unsullied watershed requires less expensive treatment of the water. “The poorer the water, the more expensive treatment you need,” he says.
UVic-based researcher Oliver Brandes, associate director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance and leader of its Water Sustainability Project, says Canadians have a low H2O IQ. “We really need to make people understand why it’s important to protect it and how valuable it is.” He says what makes Victoria unique is that we own and control our water source, “which is extremely rare.” Governments all over the world, he says, are scrambling to do that.
How safe is bottled water?
A recent report by the Polaris Institute implies that bottled water regulations are “woefully inadequate.” They discovered that, since 2000, there have been 29 recalls of 49 bottled water products in Canada and reveal that bottled water plants are inspected, on average, once every three years. Tap water is inspected multiple times daily. The report’s co-author Joe Cressy sounded alarm bells with his comment: “It is deeply concerning that the 1 in 3 Canadians who primarily drink bottled water as their source of drinking water are
consuming an unregulated and environmentally harmful product.”
“Regardless, there is no shelf life and there is no criteria under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency like the way ham is regulated. Water should be regulated the same way,” says Mazumder.
The CBWA’s Griswold says bottled water is regulated and tested every single day and that studies have failed to find chemicals in the water produced at levels that pose any threat to humans. “There are some companies that will run over 2,000 tests per week on their product,” she says, noting that all bottled waters are required to meet standards set out in the Food and Drug Act.
Water flow=cash flow
Cameron Diaz drinks Penta water, while Madonna favours VOSS Artesian from Norway. Bling H2O bills itself as “Pop Culture in a Bottle.” How can tap water compete with that? It can’t.
“We have fallen prey to a marketing scheme,” says Lisa Gue, the David Suzuki Foundation’s health environmental policy analyst. “Consumers need to open their eyes to this marketing ploy and convert back to good old tap water.” She says it’s ironic the market is driven by quality concerns, when there are very few controls on bottled water.
“Test results show there’s no benefit to drinking bottled water,” says Hull. “If you want to pay more for a litre of water than a litre of gasoline, marketers have got you.”
Bottled water has become a trendy accessory. In Canada alone, there are more than 100 varieties, with almost as many attractive and alluring hooks attached. And the easy availability of bottled water has given it additional marketing clout.
Bottled water’s first sip of popularity came in the 18th century when Swiss doctors proclaimed medicinal benefits of artificially carbonated water. By the 1970s, Perrier was the beverage of choice at Studio 54. In the last 30 years, sales of bottled water are submerging competing beverages and making the world’s largest bottled water manufacturers very rich. Nestlé, the world’s largest food conglomerate, is also the leading bottled water company. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are right behind.
A bottle of water a day from a vending machine will cost you $700 a year. Buying all eight glasses of water we’ve been told to drink if we want to remain healthy will set you back $2,100. How much does it cost the manufacturers? The big three pay paltry fees to withdraw millions of litres of water from rural springs and aquifers. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo fill their Dasani and Aquafina brands with tap water for, literally, next to nothing. At Coca-Cola’s water plant in Brampton, the company can obtain 34,000 litres of water from the public water system for what it costs the consumer to buy a one-litre bottle of their water: about $1.70.
Critics argue that bottled water companies are the only companies that don’t have to pay royalties to extract raw materials, as do the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries. Industry analysts will tell you that the profit margin for bottled water, after the bills are paid for production, packaging, and advertising, is 35 per cent. For home delivery of larger containers, it’s 60 per cent.
For the taps to compete with the bottles, Mazumder thinks the CRD should get into the marketing game. “I keep saying the same thing to the CRD water department over the last 10 years. People need to be told how good the water is. They’re not and that’s the CRD water department’s failure.”
“Eau du Paris” was the tagline the French capital gave to a marketing strategy aimed to turn bottle suckers into tap turners. In 2005, they distributed designer carafes and used branding techniques similar to those of the bottled water companies.
Those plastic water bottles
The costs of producing the bottles alone are horrendous. Those one billion plastic water bottles Canadians go through every year requires the use of 1.5 million barrels of oil: that’s one-half of one day’s oil use in the entire country. Add in transportation costs and that’s quite the carbon footprint. And, with blue boxes overflowing with plastic, it’s hard to believe Canadians dump an estimated 800 million water bottles into landfills every year. Griswold says the CBWA has long been concerned about the problem and has actively sought better recycling programs, especially recycling away from home. “There’s very little opportunity for public-space recycling and that’s where the majority of bottled water is being consumed.”
In early May, Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell rose in the upper house to launch an inquiry into the provision of bottled water in federal facilities, asking for a ban on single-serving plastic bottles. The senator suggested that the government could save $12.4 million a year in taxpayer money if tap water were preferred over bottles. While Mitchell spoke about the damage all that thrown away plastic is causing, it was the buck he played for trump, and, on Parliament Hill, money often beats all the face cards. “I point out that the Prime Minister’s own department, the Privy Council Office, spends over $30,000 annually on bottled water contracts.”
Whether Ottawa will acknowledge Mitchell’s plea is unlikely, but his is another voice added to a rising chorus calling for a bottle ban. A Liberal private member’s bill in Parliament calling for a nationwide ban was shot down last November, but it hasn’t stopped local governments from taking up the fight. Municipalities throughout North America have tried, with varied success, to keep the plastic containers out of places where civic business is done. However, the plastic water bottle lobby is a strong one led by big industry. Last December, Toronto city council voted to ban the sale of plastic water bottles on municipal premises by 2011, but it wasn’t a slam-dunk. Earlier proposals for the same legislation were met with an expensive and extensive industry campaign to protect the sale of their commodity.
Following Vancouver’s decision to phase out plastic water bottles at civic functions, Victoria passed similar legislation in late April. “We have to set an example,” says city councillor John Luton. “We’re spending on providing one of the best water systems in North America and we should be drinking that water.” He says he was following the lead of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities urging members to ban bottles, but it wasn’t until he attended a meeting put on by an environmental group that he resolved to involve Victoria. “There was a bunch of bottled water sitting there on the table. It drove me around the bend.”
As of May 1, more than 30 municipalities in six provinces had passed restrictions on bottled water sales. Griswold counters many of the bans are based on misinformation andcalls them symbolic. “We’re basing decisions on the premise that bottled water is competing with tap water.” Once the bottled water option vanishes, consumers will turn to other beverages, many in plastic bottles and all of them less healthy.
Gue says there’s been no emphasis that a bottled water ban is a top priority for Ottawa to take the lead on, so it’s up to the individual. “It’s being driven entirely by consumer demand, so it’s up to us as consumers to say ‘No thank you.’ Once we stop buying bottled water, there will be no bottled water.”
By David Lennam
A high water mark
• Bottled water is, on average, 1,900 times the price of tap water (and up to 10,000 times more per gallon).
• Canadians spent more than $670 million on bottled water in 2007.
• The average Canadian drinks more than 62 litres of bottled water a year.
• Globally, we consumed 206 billion litres of bottled water last year, up 57 per cent from five years earlier.
• Annual consumer spending on bottled water, internationally, is more than $100 billion.
• 1,500 water bott
les end up as garbage every second.
• It takes 16 million barrels of oil to produce 24 billion plastic bottles. That’s enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars for a year and it also means 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced by manufacturing the bottles.
• The production of one kilogram of PET (the plastic in the water bottles) requires 17.5 kilograms of water.
What can we do?
• Buy a refillable, stainless steel water bottle and fill it with tap water
• Install more water fountains, especially in public places
• Beef up recycling opportunities in public spaces
• Remove bottled water from vending machines