Waste Free Wednesday: All About Plastic Water Bottles

Plastic water bottles, let’s just start by say one thing and one thing only: N-O, no, nah, nope, nuh uh, never, nein. Like come on, its 2017 – how are these still a thing? We need to put our feet down people, it is time to get rid of these once and for all!
So this week’s  #WasteFreeWednesday is all about …. The atrocious, shameful, horrendous, repulsive plastic water bottles! Why they suck, why they still somehow exist in 2017, and what you (yes you!) can do about it (and what is already being done, holla!).


What’s the big deal with having bottled water?

If you don’t know about any of the issues with bottled water, it might not seem like that big of a deal! Maybe you’ve been drinking it all your life so it is all you know, or maybe you don’t like the taste of your tap water or you’ve heard it could be unsafe so you just prefer to drink bottled water. However, there are a number of reasons that we should all stop buying and drinking plastic bottled water that we’ve discussed below. Check it out!


Energy consumption.

Creating plastic bottles of water takes up a TON of energy. This figure from Gleick and Cooley’s paper “Energy implications of bottled water” shows some of the ways energy is required for bottled water. The production of PET, the plastic used to make these bottles, is the first step in a long chain of energy intensive processes.Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 3.07.32 PM
They found that creating bottled water typically requires 5.6 to 10.2 MJ 1^-1 of energy, whereas tap water requires a fraction of that for treatment and distribution (less than 0.0009% if we’re being conservative).
The Pacific Institute “estimate[s] that the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil.”

One of the biggest energy requirements is for transportation, which occurs at multiple steps during the life cycle of a water bottle. This brings us to our next big problem…


Pollution.

Transportation is just one of the ways by which bottled water causes pollution. For example, water from Nestlè travels up to 3,147 km across Canada, creating greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels used to power trucks, planes, and trains.

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“In November 2011, Business Insider reported that the production of water bottles consumed 17 million barrels of oil a year in the United States” (The Council of Canadians). The potential for environmental destruction from pollution associated with oil extraction alone is terrifying. These photographs of the destruction caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from National Geographic is devastating.

This isn’t the only potential for pollution, however. According to The Pacific Institute, “The manufacture of every ton of PET produces around 3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Bottling water thus created more than 2.5 million tons of CO2 in 2006.”


Waste.

Disposing of plastic water bottles is a problem in itself.

Although plastic water bottles are recyclable, they don’t always end up there. Improper signage, lack of recycling receptacles and facilities, and unaware users results in plastic waste ending up in the landfill. It’s not clear how many bottles are actually recycled, as Nestlè estimates 70-75% are, The Canadian Bottled Water Association estimates 45-80% are, while Stewardship Ontario estimates 66% of household water bottles are. Considering that 2.4 billion litres of bottled water are bought in Canada every year, even a 80% recycle rate means we have a lot of plastic water bottles ending up in landfills.

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Plastic water bottles also contribute to litter. Data from the litter tracking app Litterati shows that plastic is the most commonly littered type of waste. Finding a sealed water bottle discarded on the side of the road or along a forest trail with water still in it is heart wrenching. That precious water is now trapped inside as that water bottle slowly, slowly degrades.

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Paul, our waste reduction coordinator, sorting waste during Plastic Free Guelph‘s 2016 Earth Day cleanup

Even if bottles do end up at recycling facilities, recycling is costly and requires energy input. According to a 2016 Business Insider report, it is cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle used plastic. This is due in part to low oil costs, but also the high costs of sorting non-recyclable products out at recycling facilities. This leads to more companies opting to use new plastics. This doesn’t mean we should stop recycling though. Just take Bill Nye’s word for it in this video.

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Cost

If saving money is something that you are concerned about and you’re still buying plastic water bottles by the case, it is time to stop! If you don’t care about any of the other impacts of bottled water, at least consider that you are already paying for your tap water and you’re paying about 10 cents per litre, which is incredibly cheap in comparison to bottles of water that you have to go out of your way to purchase. If nothing else, quitting bottled water saves you tons of money!!

money


So, why do we still have bottled water?

There are a lot of different factors for why we still have bottled water but basically, if people buy it, companies will continue to make it. So, let’s explore the four main reasons (in our opinion) why bottled water still exists:


“It tastes gross!”

One of the arguments that people often give for why they prefer to drink bottled water is simply that they prefer the taste over their tap water (even if it’s filtered). If you ask us, that’s a weak argument. There’s a reason the phrase “acquired taste” exists – start drinking tap water and you’ll get used to it. Trust us, Guelph has hard water (meaning it’s kinda weird tasting) and we’ve all grown to love it. If taste is an issue for you, filter your tap water with something like a Brita filter jug and keep it in the fridge with lemon or cucumber slices.


Health.

Some municipalities add small amounts of chemicals to their water like fluoride or chlorine as a cheaper way to filter the water/prevent tooth decay and this fact often scares many people.

drinking water

People may also worry that their water is not safe to drink because of poor filtration practices. However, Canada has strict testing regulations, especially after incidents like in Walkerton. In many cities, the water is tested every few hours and there are careful filtration practices to ensure that the water is as safe as it can be. Read more about these policies here. Of course, this is not often the case in Canadian First Nations communities, who are often marginalized in Canadian society.


Unsafe drinking water.

As mentioned above, there are many communities in Canada, the US, and around the world where the water simply is not safe to drink.

For example, many First Nations communities in Canada have had “boil water advisories” for many years because their tap water is so unsafe, due to chemicals, bacteria and contamination from natural resource extraction that often occurs in or near their communities. Another example close to home is in Flint, Michigan, where their water has had lead poisoning since 2014 and 12 people died as a result between 2014 and 2015. There are countless other communities around the world where the water is unsafe with various pollutants and bacteria, and entire countries where the tap water is unsafe to drink.

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Photo by Fred Lum for the Globe and Mail

We are extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to drink water straight from the tap in most communities in Canada. Many places do not have access to this basic human right and as a result, often rely on bottled water, which is definitely filtered. For us to demand that all bottled water should be banned is unfair and comes from a place of privilege. We believe if you have access to safe drinking water from your tap, you should take advantage of it and not contribute to the ongoing pollution and water shortage problems associated with bottled water. However, we cannot demand that bottled water should not exist entirely. Instead, lobbying should be done to insist that the government provides marginalized communities safe drinking water. Until this happens, bottled water is the best solution for many communities.


Corporate pressure.

Corporations push bottled water and lobby governments to allow them to tap aquifers and are able to do this because they have massive profits on bottled water. “Most provinces charge these companies next to nothing to extract this water from springs and aquifers, and whole watersheds are now under threat from this practice,” Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians Chairperson. For example, Nestlè is charged $3.71 for every million litres they draw and they could draw over a million litres a day in Ontario communities. When one considers that they sell a 250mL bottle of water for over a dollar, the profit margins are outstanding. Thus, they have a lot of money to bring to the table, especially when going up against small municipalities.

Another way Nestlè maintains power is by paying taxes to governments. They paid $1,027,450 in taxes to the County of Wellington/Township of Puslinch/Town of Erin and both school boards in this area in 2014, demonstrating that they are providing a large amount of money to the municipalities to be allowed to continue drawing water from aquifers. That is a large cash-flow to small towns that certainly could not be eliminated overnight. This corporate pressure makes it easier for companies like Nestlè to continue doing what they have always done.


If you’re interested in reading more, take a look at this great CBC article from 2014 (some information is outdated) that outlines some of the differences between bottled and tap water, as well as some benefits and negatives for each.

Next week we will be giving you a recap of Waterstock 2017 and explaining what else YOU can do about plastic water bottles!

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Love,

The Ladies of Sustainability ❤

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