Toronto's decision last week to ban the sale and distribution of bottled water on city premises was a watershed moment for water justice advocates the world over. What was truly significant about Toronto's action was not that it banned an environmentally destructive product, but that it included a commitment to ensuring access to tap water in all city facilities.
Toronto is now the largest city in the world to pass such far-reaching regulations controlling the distribution of bottled water on municipal property and promoting the use of publicly delivered tap water. Other Canadian and American municipalities have enacted policies encouraging the consumption of tap water and limiting the distribution of bottled water using taxpayer money, but none as large as Toronto has taken such a comprehensive approach.
Toronto's action is in many ways the result of a diverse North American public campaign that has successfully raised awareness about bottled water as an unnecessary and wasteful product when the majority of people in Canada and the United States have access to clean drinking water from the tap.
In Canada, this campaign gained significant exposure in early 2005 when the Polaris Institute published Inside the Bottle: an Exposé of the Bottled Water Industry, which provided an overview of the 10 key problems with bottled water. Over the nearly four years since, a popular movement to challenge the bottled water industry has emerged at an astonishing pace - as schools and universities, restaurants, hospitals, faith-based organizations, unions and municipalities have decided to turn on the tap and kick out the bottle.
As is often the case, Toronto's initiative had its own elected champions steering it forward. City Councillor Glen De Baeremaeker and Mayor David Miller had the progressive vision to include bottled water in their goal of keeping unnecessary packaging out of city landfills. Their efforts were coupled with a concerted grassroots push by Ontario-based activists, public interest organizations, community and student groups, labour unions and environmental networks.
In the days leading up to the Toronto vote, city councillors faced a barrage of lobbying from the bottled water industry. These frantic attempts to defeat the resolution continued over the two days of debates when the industry brought a battery of lobbyists, corporate executives and industry associations into the council chamber to influence the vote. Representatives from the Canadian Bottled Water Association, Refreshments Canada and Nestlé Waters, along with their hired lobbyists from the Sussex Strategy Group and Argyle Communications, intensively lobbied councillors during the entire six-hour debate. However, their high-priced strategy ultimately failed to influence elected officials, who voted with a two-thirds majority to ban bottled water and reinvest in the public delivery of drinking water.
For many, Toronto has now become the champion of the "Back to the Tap" municipal movement in Canada. To date, this movement has already seen 17 municipalities from five provinces ban the bottle. With 45 others indicating an interest to follow suit, Toronto's leadership will no doubt inspire more municipalities to stand up and speak out in support of public water. To further enable this municipal movement, Toronto City Council also passed a motion to circulate its resolutions and amended staff report to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Regional Public Works Commissioners of Ontario.
Increasingly across Canada, municipal leaders are showing that there is a strong political will for reinvestments in public water services. However, access to municipal drinking water is dwindling with new buildings constructed without water fountains and older ones decommissioning existing fountains. Now is the time to issue strong calls to all levels of government for greater public access to free potable water and a wholesale reinvestment in water infrastructure and services
It's becoming clear that the recent love affair with bottled water has reached its limits. Bottled water's 15 minutes are up, the marketing scam is out of the closet and the tap is back. The simple fact is that there is no "green" solution to bottled water. While it might serve a function during natural disasters or other contingencies, it is no alternative to the tap.
Toronto has made the right choice to support public water infrastructure and to increase city residents' access to clean, convenient and environmentally sound drinking water - the only question now is which municipality or province will be next.