Tapping into bottled water concerns

Environmental effects may make you think twice about that Dasani

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Soda has been banned in many schools because of the effects these sugary, caffeinated drinks have on children’s health. Since July when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned bottled water from city departments and all city functions, it looks like that’s the next beverage to go. But what could be wrong with a bottle of pure and refreshing H2O?

From the natural spring, through bottling, packaging and shipping all around the world, bottled water leaves a wake of waste and carbon emissions in its path. Though water may be one of the healthiest beverages for you, bottles of water are hardly healthy for the environment.

The Tea Room has stopped selling bottled water because of the harm it causes the environment, said Tim Philpott, environmental and human resources manager.

“There’s a variety of reasons but the first reason is that it is a little bit unsustainable to sell water in plastic bottles,” Philpott said.

He said one kilogram of plastic bottles requires 17.5 kilograms of water to be used in the production process.

“You’re putting more water into it than you’re getting out,” he said.

Philpott said the Tea Room’s sources also found an astounding 80 per cent of water bottles are not recycled. These water bottles contribute to unnecessary greenhouse gasses.

“The bottling of water and the shipping of water creates a lot of carbon emissions,” he said.

Water drinkers also have a completely safe and economical alternative to these plastic bottles: tap water. Philpott said Kingston’s water is tested for more than 160 contaminants.

“We have regulations in place to make sure that the water is safe,” he said.

Philpott said there have been taste tests done at the University that found people couldn’t taste the difference between tap and bottled water.

He said it’s just as convenient and much less expensive to carry a Nalgene bottle and drink that tap water for free.

“If you want to come to the Tea Room you are more than welcome to get a glass of municipal tap water with ice in one of our biodegradable cups,” Philpott said.

With quality tap water at hand, why do we continue to buy bottles that harm the environment? Philpott said convenience, and a bit of intelligent marketing, have made our society reliant of the ease of bottled water.

“I think that marketing and giant corporations, like for example Coke, are putting it in the mind of consumers to buy things at convenience like that bottle of water.

“It’s something that we as a society can’t get away from because it’s corporate culture.”

Philpott said there are ways to affect change to these corporate habits and attitudes.

“We can try to work from a grassroots level away from that message that might not a sustainable message,” he said.

“People argue it’s the convenience. Well it’s just as convenient to have your own bottle and we’ll fill it up for free.”

Putting an end to bottled water requires changing our wasteful attitudes, he said.

“We need to focus on reusing things and get away from this culture of throwing things away.” Philpott said students should make use of water resources that the municipality supplies at a very reduced cost.

“I would say that we live in the province of Ontario with a wonderful abundance of water. … Why do we need to import water when we have such a huge resource of water?”

John Rhodes, supervisor of solid waste disposal for the City of Kingston, said single-use bottles aren’t always a good idea from a waste perspective. Though he said a proportion of water bottles do get recycled, that doesn’t mean they are environmentally friendly.

“With any waste it is preferable not to produce it in the first place, or at least reduce the amount that is generated,” Rhodes said.

He explained single-use water bottles are made from number one PET (polyethylene terephthlate) plastic. It’s difficult to tell what proportion of the plastic bottles are actually recycled, but in 2001 the waste department estimated recycling recovery rates for PET were approximately 70 per cent based on a Kingston neighbourhood waste composition study. In 2006, 414 metric tonnes were recycled in Kingston and the Loyalist Township.

Although almost all the material from PET bottles can be reused for making new products, Rhodes said this doesn’t come without a cost.

“Think about how much waste that is—recycled or otherwise. It takes a lot of energy, money and time,” he said.

“We all have to think about what we’re doing in waste issues.”

Environmental Studies Professor Stephen Brown said he doesn’t think anyone can measure how sustainable bottled water really is.

“I’m not sure anyone can put a number on it,” he said.

Brown said it depends a lot on how the bottles are recycled.

“When they do bottled water, if it’s in PET plastic, that’s fairly easy to recycle,” he said.

However, Brown added, making and transporting bottles is another thing.

While reusable bottles, like the thick, refillable Evian bottles, might seem to be better for the environment, those bring up issues with plastic breakdown. As bottles are repeatedly used, the plastic can break down and contaminate the water. Brown said this is a cause for concern, but those plastic contaminants are no more dangerous than contaminants normally found in your tap water.

“It is true that there is a bottled water issue, but there’s also issues in tap water.”

Another concern with refillable bottles, Brown said, is they end up taking more water to be reused.

“Your trade-off is you use a lot of water to rewash them.”

Some bottles of water might not be much different from your tap water. Brown said some companies, like Dasani, heavily filter and treat the water from the tap, then replace much of what they removed.

“They call it re-mineralized,” Brown said. “They put the stuff back in that they took out.”

Though bottled water may harm the environment, that doesn’t mean that banning the bottles will really help. According to Brown, this kind of a ban might not be the right response.

“My knee-jerk reaction is it’s an overreaction,” he said.

Brown said the banning of bottled water won’t necessarily decrease the amount of PET bottles being produced.

“If you ban bottled water in a district, does that mean they’re drinking tap water or does that mean they’re drinking juice in the PET bottle?” he asked.

“I’m concerned it unfairly penalizes water and ends up supporting the soda industry.”

Rather than a widespread ban, Brown suggested people could take their own individual steps towards environmental responsibility.

“What we’ve done at home is to put a small water filter in the house. That way we can achieve the same taste quality.”

Bottled water’s carbon footprint

  • Last year, producing water bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation.
  • Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2006.
  • It takes three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water.
  • The PET bottles this water is usually sold in require nearly 900,000 tons of plastic produced from fossil fuels.
  • It takes around 3.4 megajoules of energy to make a typical one-litre plastic bottle, cap and packaging.
  • Almost one-third of Canadian households drank primarily bottled water in 2006.
  • In Ontario, 30 per cent of households with a municipal water supply drank primarily bottled water in 2006 and 17 per cent drank both bottled and tap water.
Source: The Pacific Institute and Statistics Canada

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