OTTAWA — Almost one year ago to the day today, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities resolved to, in their own words, “phase out the sale and purchase of bottled water at their own facilities where appropriate and where potable water is available.”
About 70 municipalities have made good on that pledge. The City of Ottawa is not one of them. Ottawa can’t go bottle-free because there aren’t enough public fountains to provide water to its citizens. Indeed, there are only two hard-to-find fountains in the City Hall building itself.
“We have a long way to go to provide access to our residents of our own water,” said Councillor Diane Holmes, who has been championing the installation of more public fountains.
“There have been some fountains taken out as bottled water became the thing. And now it’s time to put those fountains back in.”
The water and sewer budget, which will be discussed later this month, is expected to set aside money for fountain installation, said Holmes, although a report dated last month makes no explicit mention of public water taps.
Holmes is also hoping Ottawa will invest in water trucks that can be parked at city festivals. The tankers hold city water and have taps that people can use to fill up their own containers. Toronto has used the water trucks with success, but Holmes acknowledges that getting even one truck operational by summer is a “pretty tight timeline.”
She also acknowledges that “there are various groups who would like us to be more proactive about bottled water in our own facilities.”
One of those groups is the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based advocacy group and organizer of “Bottled Water Free Day” — which is today. It has nothing to do with bottled water being given away at no cost. Instead, it’s the first in what organizers hope will be an annual awareness campaign about the environmental costs of bottled water.
Water-bottle plastic is a petroleum product. It requires large amounts of energy to make that plastic, not to mention the fuel needed to run bottling operations and transport the bottles, charge critics of the products.
According to a report by California-based Pacific Institute, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce the 31 billion litres of bottled water consumed each year in the U.S. And twice as much water is used to produce the bottled water than the amount in the bottle.
Although the plastic bottles are recyclable, at least 200 million of them end up in Canadian landfills every year.
That’s why environmental activists are working to get us off the bottle. Bottled Water Free Day, organized by the Canadian Federation of Students, Sierra Youth Coalition and Polaris, will see events at more than 60 college and university campuses. Toronto’s Ryerson University is expected to announce it’s joining the other three Canadian universities that ban the sale of bottled water on their premises.
More than 70 organizations, school boards, corporations and municipalities have endorsed the day, and 2,334 individuals have already signed the Bottled Water Free Day Pledge — “Starting today, I pledge not to drink bottled water where public water is available” — although organizers expect that number to surge today.
Also on the agenda is a public scolding of the Mother Corp. It turns out the CBC spent more than $450,000 on bottled water at its facilities in the four years spanning fiscal 2005 to 2008, according to Access to Information reports obtained by Polaris.
The report also found in five-year period ending 2008, 28 federal government departments spent $15,676,836 on bottled water, but much of that is due to the fact that water is not available otherwise. In fact, when the report looks only at government spending on bottled water for facilities with access to safe drinking water, the total drops to $8.5 million over the same five years.
Availability of public water is an issue at other public institutions as well. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has managed to trim its water-bottle use by 66 per cent — down to 3,000 from 9,000 bottles — at its administrative headquarters. But Michael Carson, superintendent of facilities, admitted that the board hasn’t been “as successful as we would have liked in the schools.” Part of the reason is that school fountains need to be upgraded and replaced, at a cost of $100,000 the board does not have.
The Canadian Bottled Water Association’s executive director believes the message for today “should focus on on-campus recycling for all beverage containers and the health of the students, not taking away a healthy choice and singling out one industry.”
Elizabeth Griswold said that “water is the healthiest of the beverage industry options that are available, and people drinking bottled water when tap water is unavailable is a good choice.”
By the numbers
30% — Proportion of Canadians who say bottled water is their primary source of water
2.2 billion — Litres of bottled water Canadians consumed in 2008
$1.6 billion — Amount Canadians spent on bottled water in 2008
17 million — Water bottles recovered by City of Ottawa for recyling in 2008
16 million — Plastic water bottles the city estimates went to the landfill
$450,749 — Total spent on bottled water by the CBC from 2005 to 2008, inclusive
$15.7 million — Amount spent on bottled water by 28 federal government departments from 2004 and 2008, inclusive
$8.5 million — Amount spent on bottled water over the same period by federal departments in facilities where safe drinking water was easily accessible
$766,865 — Amount spent by Environment Canada