Published on
the Toronto Sun

The War Against Water Bottles

There's a growing chorus of opposition to the plastc waste these vessels generate

Don Peat

It's a battle against the bottle.

And Maude Barlow's month-long, province-wide speaking tour is just another operation in a war she says is to win the hearts, minds and parched thirst of consumers.

Barlow, the national chairman of the Council of Canadians, will stop in Toronto this week as part of her 20 city speaking tour against bottled water with CUPE president Sid Ryan.

The council estimates at least 21 municipalities across Canada, the majority in Ontario, have either already passed a bottle ban or have one coming down the legislative pipe.

To Barlow, a senior adviser on water to the president of the UN general assembly, the fight against private water makes economic and environmental sense.

"We're not banning it, if people want to drink bottled water they can still drink bottled water, I hope they'll choose not to," she told the Sun from Midland earlier this week.


"These are the institutions responsible for municipal drinking water, why would they be kind of saying, 'Wink, wink, but don't really drink it, we suggest you buy our water.'"

She may be suggesting municipalities only ban the sale of water on their own property but Barlow makes no secret about the fact the municipal bans could be the thin edge of the wedge to put the industry out of business.

"I'd love it," Barlow said. "I'd love to put them out of business. It would be my delight."

With words like that it's no surprise the industry is pushing back.

Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, said battling back against the battle against the industry has been "an experience in education."

The trade association, first formed in Ontario in 1987, represents about 85% of bottled water sold in Canada and around 13,000 employees. Her job is to push back battle bans.

"We have been quite busy making sure the various municipalities and boards of education have the facts in front of them," Griswold said.


"There are thousands of beverages and items that use more plastic than the water package but it seems that only bottled water has this giant target on it," she said.

"The focus should be on increasing recycling containers and increasing the recycling program across Canada."

Part of her argument is that the bans don't help put one single bottle into the recycling bin instead of the landfill.

Barlow's not against recycling, she's all for it, but the problem is the 650 million water bottles still being thrown into Ontario landfills every year despite most municipalities having the ability to recycle the bottles. She said only 35% of bottles are actually recycled.

The bottled water association maintains the bottles account for less than 1% of waste in landfills and over the last five years, the amount of plastic used has been reduced by 30% to 40%. Griswold maintains the industry is "heavily regulated" and "committed to responsible environmental practices."

"There should be more room for healthy debate on this topic but people need to be given the right facts and there simply seems to be enormous inaccurate and misleading information out there about the industry in Canada," she said.

Barlow accuses the industry of building distrust in tap water.

"We spend taxpayers' money making the water that way -- why do we then turn around and spend a whole bunch more money on private water in plastic that pollutes," she said.

Griswold said the industry wants people to drink water from either a bottle or a tap.

"They simply encourage drinking safe and clean water," she said.


Barlow has some successes to tout on the tour.

City council in London, Ont., passed a bottle ban in 2008 and last week passed a motion asking the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to urge all municipal governments to phase out the sale and purchase of bottled water.


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"The London council has already shown incredible leadership," Barlow said. "Through this resolution we will replicate London's ban across the country."

If adopted, Canadian municipal lawmakers would be hot on the heels of their U.S. counterparts.

Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution encouraging "cities to phase out, where feasible, government use of bottled water and promote the importance of municipal water."

At the time the London ban was passed Nestle Waters Canada aggressively argued such action wouldn't change human behaviour.

"Sixty percent of Canadians drink bottled water every day -- and 75% of them consume it because it is a portable, accessible and healthy choice," Gail Cosman, president of Nestle Waters Canada, said last year.

"In an independent survey conducted in May, 2008 by Probe Research Inc., Canadians said they are not choosing bottled water over municipal tap water," she said.

"They are choosing bottled water over other bottled beverages with higher calories. What should be of particular concern to the City of London is that the Probe study also indicated that about 60% of bottled water drinkers said they will revert to less healthy alternatives found in plastic beverage containers if bottled water isn't available."

Barlow said she's not in favour of "sugar water" drinks either, but those aren't available from a tap or fountain like water.

"I think it's going to become uncool to drink bottled water," Barlow said.

"It's going to be like blowing unfiltered cigarette smoke in someone's face or drinking and driving."

The trend against bottled water got a bigger boost a few months after London's decision, when Toronto approved its ban alongside imposing a five-cent charge on plastic shopping bags.

The December policy bans the sale of bottled water at all city civic centres -- either immediately or following the expiry of any existing contracts.


Other city divisions were ordered to develop their own programs by Dec. 31, 2011 which would ban the sale and distribution of bottled water at all their facilities. The divisions were also told to improve accessibility to tap water.

"What they created was an unfair purchasing policy and it did nothing to address improving recycling programs across the GTA for all containers," Griswold said. "Anyone who goes to a city arena, a park or a theatre, no longer has the choice of getting a healthy water in place of the sugary beverages that are being offered."

While the city doesn't measure water bottles specifically, Geoff Rathbone, Toronto's general manager of solid waste management services, said it has some idea how many are going to landfills instead of being recycled.

The city recycles around 3,600 tonnes of the one-use bottles each year. Those bottles can hold anything from water to juice and soft drinks.

Around 30% of those are water bottles which works out to around 1,000 tonnes, Rathbone said.

With 65,000 water bottles in a tonne, the city estimates it recycled 65 million bottles.

Trustees at the Toronto District School Board have also raised the possibility of a ban similar to one passed by trustees in Waterloo, Ont. The country's largest school board is waiting on a staff report about the implications of a ban.

The bottled water industry also has successes.

Sarnia signed a recycling agreement with Nestle and its partners to roll out a program that will see the bottlers spend $100,000 on large recycling bins for parks and arenas along with public education.

Mayor Mike Bradley told Sun Media an outright ban, while a simple solution politically, wouldn't have addressed the large number of plastic bottles that wind up in landfills.

Barlow slammed it as a "deal with the devil."

She said Sarnia is using corporate cash to build a recycling program. Before long it will be addicted to the funding, which will come with strings attached.

"To allow a company like Nestle to come along and dictate policy, for what is essentially a bribe, is not a good policy in the long run," she said.

Nestle Waters and its partners recently entered into a $7.2 million, three-year agreement with the Quebec government and municipalities to collect and recycle plastic beverage containers.

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