In 2011, the University of Toronto joined other Canadian universities such as Ryerson, Ottawa, Concordia, Winnipeg, Queen’s, and Trent as a water bottle free campus. But why ban the bottle? Some may think it’s solely about environmental issues, while others might believe it’s about the preservation of natural resources. In actuality, it’s all that and more.

Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

Canada has a wealth of fresh, clean water for us to enjoy, already paid for through our taxes. Lake Ontario provides drinking water to nearly half of Ontario’s residences, including Toronto’s population of 2.79 million people. With Ontario’s Clean Water Act enacted in 2006 to protect existing and future sources of drinking water, and Toronto’s Water Quality Assurance Program, tap water in Toronto (and Canada, in general), is perfectly safe without further filtration. In fact, the city of Toronto tests it water quality every four hours, and checks for traces of over 300 substances at the multiple water treatment facilities throughout the city. Ontario’s drinking water is regulated under several laws, like the Safe Drinking Water Act (2002), the water quality standards regulation (169/03), and the drinking water systems regulation (170/03). Toronto’s drinking water earned at 100% in standard testing in 2010 to 2011, with an inspection rating of 95.77%. In contrast, bottled water sold in Canada (no matter where it was manufactured or packaged) is regulated as a food under the Food and Drugs Act. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency can inspect bottled water products, and while regulations are in place, the water is not tested every four hours like our municipal tap water. For example, 27 out of 49 bottled water products have been recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency since 2000.  Heath Canada even states that bottled water is not safer than municipal tap water, but is actually similar in safety to tap water. So ideas that bottled water is safer and better quality than tap water is, in fact, unfounded.

Environmental Impacts

Plastic bottles are recyclable, right? Yes, but that only works when the bottle actually gets recycled, and doesn’t end up in a landfill (or, inevitably, the ocean). As little as 50% of water bottles used in Toronto everyday are being recycled, meaning the rest ends up in a landfill. As such, up to 65 million water bottles end up in landfills every year. Once in a landfill, a plastic bottle can take up to 1000 years to even begin composting. If incinerated, the plastic releases toxic fumes.

And the bottles that end up in the ocean? They aren’t just floating around there, harmlessly. About 900 kilometres off the coast of California, a massive island of plastic about 30 metres deep and larger than Quebec, called the Great Pacific garbage patch, floats and is ever-expanding. According to Greenpeace, 10% if all the plastic produced ends up in the oceans each year. Plastic, when exposed to direct sunlight, photodegrades. Meaning, the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, called nurdles, which then are eaten by marine animals and enter the food chain. These nurdles contain toxins, which poison the animals that consume the plastic, and every animal which consumes them. The David Suzuki Foundations estimates more than 1 million birds and marine animals die each year from the plastic in the ocean.

Producing bottled water is not environmentally friendly, either. 90% of the cost of a water bottle is the packaging, shipping, and marketing, rather than the actual product. This is because bottled water costs between 240 to 10,000 times more than tap water. When you buy bottled water, especially water that’s actually municipal tap water bottled by corporations, you’re paying mostly for plastic and corporate function rather than the actual water itself. If you were to drink the recommended eight glasses of water a day, but from bottled water, you would be spending around $1,400 per year on bottled water. It actually takes more water to produce bottled water than is in the bottle, as well: it takes 3 to 5 litres of water to produce a 1 litre bottle of water.

If plastic is so bad, why not just ban all bottled drinks? Banning bottled water is about more than just the environmental impacts. Water, and access to it, is a basic human right, and therefore should be available to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

A Human Right

The UN formally recognizes “the right to water and sanitation and acknowledges that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.”

A recurring issue with the global bottled water industry is the siphoning of local communities’ water supplies for sale, at times in locations which cannot afford to purchase the marked-up prices of the bottled water and do not have access to clean drinking water otherwise. Places like Serra da Mantiqueira, Brazil, have experienced the adverse effects of the bottled water industry. Serra da Mantiqueira is known for its groundwater with a high mineral content and healing properties. However, when their groundwater began to be bottled and demineralized, one of their springs completely dried up. Even in North America, depletion of groundwater has become an issue. In B.C., the provincial government asked their residents in 2015 to limit their water usage due to a drought, while about 319.5 million litres of groundwater was being pumped for a mere $2.25 per million litres of water. Thankfully, B.C. began to implement water allocation limits to restrict the amount of water drawn out by bottled water companies, but other areas have not been so lucky.

Ban Concerns

Some were concerned that with the decreased availability of bottled water on campus, many would turn to sugary juice and soft drinks instead of water (though, let’s be real, we all know students subsist solely on coffee).

At the onset of our bottle free campaign in 2011, Food Services surveyed 568 students on Bottle Free Campus Day about their choices concerning water. The surveyed showed:

  • 42% of students preferred filtered tap water, 40% preferred tap water, and only 17% chose bottled water instead.
  • Of those 17%, 35% drank bottled water out of convenience, while 31% thought bottled water was safer and better quality.
  • While on campus, 52% cited carrying a refillable water bottle and filling it at fountains, while only 6.9% bought bottled water on campus.
  • If there was no bottled water available on campus, 38.5% said they’d bring a refillable bottle instead.
  • 85% of respondents said they would support a bottle-free campus.

What do you think? Do you think that banning the bottle drove more students to bring their own reusable bottles, or caused them to indulge in less healthy, bottled alternatives? Let us know by tweeting @ueatoronto or posting on our Facebook page (facebook.com/ueatoronto)!

– Emily Hotton

Sources

Ban the Bottle – Map of Campaigns
Canada.com – Where does Ontario’s drinking water come from, and how safe is it?
City of Toronto – Diversity
City of Toronto – Water Quality Assurance Program
Corporate Water – Nestle
The Council of Canadians – Spinning the Bottle
David Suzuki Foundation – Message in a Bottle
Health Canada – Frequently Asked Questions about Bottled Water
Ontario.ca – Clean Water Act, 2006
Ontario.ca – Municipal drinking water systems
Toronto and Region Conservation – Safeguarding Our Drinking Water
United Nations – Human Right to Water and Sanitation Milestones
The Water Project
York U – Bottled Water Facts