Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Take Back the Tap!

Here I am with Community Activist Ed Pullman
and Saanich Councillor Vicki Sanders
In a little over a decade, over-priced plastic bottles of water have gone from a niche market product to a ubiquitous item seen and sold everywhere we go. This despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians have access to safe and clean drinking water through their municipal water system.

Why do people spend their hard-earned money on plastic bottles of water? Some people claim it tastes  better than tap water. But analysts estimate between 25 and 40 percent of bottled water is simply reprocessed municipal tap water.

Of course plastic bottles of water are convenient. Advertising, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the price of a bottle of water, has successfully associated bottled water with a healthy lifestyle and a status symbol.

While many of us think nothing of this process, the environmental externalities associated with bottled water are something we cannot continue to ignore.

Bottled water consumes substantial amounts of non-renewable fuels to process, package and transport, creating adverse air quality and climate change impacts. It takes approximately three litres of water to manufacture a one litre plastic water bottle!

Although plastic bottles can be recycled, anywhere from 40% and 80% of empty bottles end up as litter. According to an Encorp Pacific recycling report, over 40 million plastic water bottles went into BC landfills alone!

In Saanich we already pay taxes to provide us with a safe and highly regulated service providing clean and fresh water. Does it make sense to encourage unnecessary use of plastic-bottle water?

Many groups have taken up the cause of reclaiming tap water, including The Polaris institute, Sierra Youth Coalition, CUPE and the Canadian Federation of Students. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has passed a resolution urging municipalities to phase out the sale and purchase of bottled water at their own facilities. Dozens of cities and universities across the country have gone or have committed to going bottled water free.

Locally, Saanich councillors recently offered unanimous support for a motion championed by councillor Vicki Sanders to phase out bottled water sales in its recreation centres and municipal buildings over the next three years. Water fountains in buildings will be upgraded with filling stations and Saanich will launch an education campaign promoting the use of personal water bottles. Esquimalt, North and Central Saanich councils have enacted similar efforts at reducing bottled water consumption.

Undergraduate students at the University of Victoria recently voted 85% in favour to phasing out bottled water and improving access to public drinking water through more water fountains and water bottle refilling stations. I’m impressed to see young people taking the lead and making such a strong statement against bottled water.

The Capital Regional District is privileged to have access to an abundance of fresh potable water through such sources as the Sooke Reservoir and Leech River. This natural system is a treasure. The average cost of a litre of our world class drinking water? Less than one-tenth of a penny! That beats the toonie you have to shell out at a vending machine. In fact, a substantial percentage of bottled water is simply re-filtered municipal tap water from another city that’s been packaged and transported hundreds or thousands of miles.

With efforts from municipal governments and civil society, what role can the provincial government play in reducing bottled water consumption? Should we begin to phase out bottled water sales at crown corporations, ministry and other provincial buildings? Could we step up education efforts and awareness campaigns?

There is no single solution to reducing bottled water consumption. Changing consumer culture takes time, patience and initiative. But I know from my efforts to encourage re-usable shopping bags in Saanich that change can happen.

What can the provincial government do to reduce bottled water consumption? Send me your thoughts and comments.