On Wednesday, the Canadian government announced the list of single-use plastic products it plans to ban. Shockingly, the list does not include plastic water bottles. This is a serious oversight that must be remedied.
The plastics crisis is destroying our lakes, rivers and oceans. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that “at least eight million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year," negatively affecting all marine species. A huge culprit is the bottled water industry.
Every minute, globally, a million plastic bottles of water are sold. The world is now producing half a trillion plastic water bottles every year, and only nine per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. The rest is dumped in landfills, forests, marshes and our shared waters.
Canadians consume more than two billion plastic bottles of water every year. This in a country where, overwhelmingly, the water coming from our taps is clean, safe, affordable and supplied by governments through public systems. There is no call whatsoever for governments to protect an industry that is contributing to the plastics crisis while spending public funds to clean and deliver safe drinking water to Canadian homes and workplaces.
Yet that is exactly what the Canadian government is doing. Because bottled water is considered a food product, its regulation is overseen by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
As such, the bottled water industry is openly promoted by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, whose mission is to support the agri-food industry and “promote innovation and competitiveness.” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's website openly promotes the “health and wellness benefits” of bottled water, in particular, flavoured bottled water geared to youth. The government site advises that “consumers are searching for convenient beverage options that offer nutritional and health benefits” to sugary high-calorie sodas.
In a February 2017 report, AgCanada lamented the “gap” in bottled water exports to China, concluding that the water-quality crisis in that country offers “significant opportunities” for the Canadian industry to "expand" into China and beyond.
Not surprisingly, a number of Canadian and foreign investors are taking the government up on this challenge. One Chinese investor has already shipped 200 container loads of water from a well near Chilliwack, B.C., and Whistler Water Inc., a consortium of Canadian and Chinese investors, announced the launch of an investment agreement to market premium Canadian glacial water to China.
Of course, the water comes from mining local groundwater and watersheds, and opposition is growing across the country. So intense is the reaction to the many new bottled water sites in B.C. that a petition in 2019 to the Union of BC Municipalities led to a resolution to ask the government to put an end to all water extractions for the bottled water industry. B.C. has experienced several years of intense drought, and people there are becoming very protective of their water heritage.
A fierce fight against bottled water has taken place over the last decade in the largely rural area near Guelph, Ont. Nestle — which recently sold its Canadian holdings — has been pumping almost five million litres a day from two wells in the area, and had acquired the licence to operate a third well in Middlebrook, outbidding a local township that needs the water for a growing population.
Six Nations of the Grand River is an Indigenous community that has been particularly vocal in its opposition to this operation. With 90 per cent of the community without running water in their homes, residents are angry because the wells are on a tract of land ceded to them in treaties long ago.
"A ban on single-use plastic water bottles would go a long way to meeting our commitment to reduce our plastic footprint ... and serve our commitment to protect clean water in a world where it is rapidly running out," says @MaudeBarlow.
Some will argue that we have to provide bottled water for those without access to clean water, especially to First Nations. It is tragically true that there is still a lack of safe water in many First Nations communities across the country. This is an issue I have personally spent considerable time working to change.
But communities needing to have water brought in rely on large water gallon containers, which would not be included in a ban on single-use water bottles. And surely the goal in Indigenous communities is not any form of plastic but safe, public tap or well water for all, as has been guaranteed by the United Nations as a fundamental human right.
It is past the time to declare water as a public trust and stop mining it for profit. A ban on single-use plastic water bottles would go a long way to meeting our commitment to reduce our plastic footprint, lower the carbon footprint of producing the plastic in the first place and serve our commitment to protect clean water in a world where it is rapidly running out.