Apr 7, 2009

Time to turn back to the tap?

The stuff of life is quickly becoming the stuff of controversy as the fight against commercial bottled water emerges as one of the fiercest environmental campaigns of the moment.

On one side is the industry and proponents who see bottled water as a viable, healthy choice, especially useful in places where water resources are limited or tainted, such as by natural disasters.

Pitched against them are various groups pushing for stricter regulations on bottled water and an end to its use as an everyday substitute for safe, publicly provided tap water. Critics say the costs of packaging and transporting bottled water puts a strain on the environment, and also raises ethical concerns about the use of Canada's water resources.

"Our concern about bottled water stems from a concern over the corporatization of water as a resource — taking a public resource and putting it into a consumer product for profit," says Rob Heydari, 23, a student co-ordinator of the Working Students' Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"We're not claiming that bottled water is unsafe," he adds. "Most of it comes from the municipal tap water system anyway."

Mr. Heydari's group is one of 15 on Canadian campuses who, together with church groups, municipalities and other organizations, have signed on to the Back-to-the-Tap Movement, including declaring "bottle-free zones." The Ryerson campus group recently built a "tower of consumption" made of empty water bottles to draw attention to the issue.

The Back-to-the Tap position is that bottled water has its uses — such as when municipal tap systems are temporarily disrupted, or available water isn't safe to drink — but that it should not replace tap water for regular everyday use.

In 2006, Canadians consumed 2.1 billion litres of bottled water, while the U.S. tally was 31 billion litres. "Producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation," says the Pacific Institute, a California-based environmental research group.

"We estimate that the total amount of energy required for every bottle is equivalent, on average, to filling a plastic bottle one-quarter full with oil," the institute said.

Recycling rates for plastic water bottles are another major concern. Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, says there are "up to 70 more uses for recycled bottles, everything from playground equipment to blankets," but studies have found that actual recycling rates are low.

The Environment and Plastics Industry Council reported that in 2002, Ontario's plastic beverage bottle recycling rate was 35 per cent, resulting in more than 33,000 tonnes of buried plastic waste.

"The recycling rate [in the United States] for PET, the primary resin used in bottled water packaging, was only 23 per cent in 2006," noted another report published in Beverage Industry magazine.

Legislation that would require deposits on bottled water containers is promoted to offset costs and increase recycling, but such "bottle bills" have been vigorously opposed by the industry in several U.S. jurisdictions where they have been introduced.

Along with environmental concerns, there are health and safety questions about plastic bottles themselves. Many people worry about hazardous chemicals found in the oil-derived plastics (PET or polyethylene terephthalate in some bottles, and bisphenol A, or BPA, found in harder plastics). Last week Health Canada declared BPA a dangerous substance, and several large retailers began pulling BPA-containing products from their shelves.

Ms. Griswold of the bottling association, however, says: "The plastics used are safe. They have been looked at by independent sources including the World Health Organization."

Critics also object to the extraction of water from municipal sources at little cost by large corporations such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola, which process and package the water and sell it back to the taxpaying consumer.

"It's a moral issue," stresses Rev. Roz Vincent-Haven, minister at Wesley United Church in Cambridge, Ont. "Water is a sacred gift that connects all life. We need to be better stewards of this resource," says Ms. Vincent-Haven, a signator to a church campaign known as Water: Life Before Profit.

The United Church of Canada has taken an official position against bottled water and urged its 590,000 members to stop buying it. Ms. Vincent-Haven's 200-member congregation decided to have no more bottled water sales as part of their fundraising events, or served at social functions.

Whether this sort of grassroots opposition is hurting bottled water sales, however, depends on who you ask. According to the bottled water association's Ms. Griswold, "we are not seeing a decline in sales." The most recent figures available from the Beverage Marketing Corp. show Canadian sales of 2.1 billion litres in 2006, which Ms. Griswold says translated into $731-million in revenue. This was an increase from 2005 sales of 1.9-billion litres, or $643-million.

Recent industry reports paint a different picture, however. Brandweek, an industry publication, says that bottled water sales are "evaporating" in the face of "increased concerns about the products' impact on the environment." According to Brandweek, coming reports will indicate that "2007 sales growth was about half that of the year prior."

Bottled water companies, meanwhile, are responding to the backlash. Evian, for example, is unveiling new green initiatives today, including the use of recycled plastics in its top-selling bottle sizes.

The Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, is concerned that corporate marketing has led consumers to view municipal water as unsafe. "People see images on bottled water that make it seem superior to tap water," says Polaris water campaigner Andrea Harden. "It's not superior, and in fact much of it actually comes from municipal water sources."

"Tap water is convenient, and if it's not, let's make it convenient by providing drinking fountains and water spigots for refillable containers," she says.

A Health Canada review of bottled water begun in 2002 looked at issues of product labelling, microbiological standards and regulation of bottled water. According to Polaris, nothing has been done about the review and its proposed changes. A Health Canada spokesperson said the department is "working to update these regulations to incorporate new scientific knowledge" and other changes, but offered no details.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal recently reported on 1,766 boil-water advisories currently in place in Canada, many in small communities. Citing the crucial role that safe water plays in public health, the report's authors expressed concern about the rise in bottled water consumption even as governments fail to invest in community water supplies.

"If we continue the trend," wrote Steve Hrudey, professor emeritus in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, "Canada could find itself emulating the poorer regions of the world where high-quality, safe drinking water is only accessible to the rich."


Some of the concerns about bottled water relate to its regulation and labelling. Health Canada states: "Both bottled and municipal waters that meet or exceed their required health and safety standards, are considered to be safe. At the present time, no waterborne disease outbreaks have been associated with drinking bottled water in Canada."

Bottled water is considered a food product and as such is regulated under the federal Food and Drug Act. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspects domestic bottled water on what it terms a regular basis. Estimates put this at anywhere from one to five years.

Municipal tap water is governed by the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, which are applied provincially. Inspections are conducted by municipalities with monitoring by provincial ministries of environment. (The City of Ottawa conducts more than 125,000 tests a year, and the City of Toronto tests water every four hours for bacteria.)

Health Canada is considering changes to bottled water regulations and labelling. This could include information about ozone-level content. Ozone, added to water during processing for inhibiting micro-organisms and removing odours, can transform naturally occurring bromide in the water into bromate, a carcinogen. Demineralized or distilled bottled water can be tap water processed to lower its mineral content or remove chemicals such as chlorine. The label is not required to state this.

There have been 27 recalls of bottled water by the Canadian Food Inspection agency since 2000.

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

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