Sustainable issues are often hard to understand because the human’s environmental platform is a whole lot more complicated than the ice shelf a polar bear hunts seals from. Everyone can understand what it means for the great white bear if the ice shelf melts beneath his feet. The bear goes hungry. But how will it affect human communities if the future means less travelling by private car? And what if the future means less plastic and plastic products? Often, you can’t even buy food or a CD without also buying its plastic wrapping. We have built a world for many generations now without costing the environmental costs. Think fracking and pipelines. Changing is going to require different expectations, different attitudes, more local, less international; better insulated homes, more neighbourhood farmer’s markets. The list is a long one.
There are, however, some issues that are very easy to understand and very easy to address. Bottled water is one of them. Water from the tap instead of in plastic bottles is just fine and has no extra charges. So why not use tap water instead of water bottled in plastic? This is where it gets complex. We don’t do it because bottled water makes immense amounts of money for some very large international corporations, e.g. Coke posted a $30 billion profit sheet last year. These corporations are a whole lot more comfortable than cities, which have always been financially fragile. (Cities get eight of your tax dollars but deliver more than 60 per cent of your services.)
Below, you will find the ABCs of why corporations are so successful in selling your city water back to you and why we should change this.
- City water is safer: The City of Ottawa’s tap water is tested many times a day. Municipal tap water is rigorously tested, and tested more frequently for more elements than bottled water.
- City water is healthier: Ottawa’s water includes the minerals calcium and magnesium that are naturally occurring in the water. Bottled water has demineralized the water, therefore making it less healthy.
- City water is less expensive: a plastic bottle of water costs 1,500 times the cost of a glass of tap water.
- Recycling in Ottawa is a sham: It is estimated that only 50 per cent of plastic water bottles are recycled. The City of Ottawa has one of the lowest records for recycling in Ontario. There is little money in the city budget to promote recycling. We need single-use plastic bottles removed from the environment.
- The city does not promote its own tap water: The city budget for water is $95 million per year. Of that annual budget, $10,000 is spent on promotion materials for city water. If you add in staff time, the amount goes up to $100,000. So the reality is that there is so little promotion of city tap water, it doesn’t register in the minds of the people who pay for it – you.
Selling out to Coca-Cola: In 2010 the city removed several million dollars from the Recreation Department budget and told the department to find private-sector dollars to fill in the gap. The suggestion was made that they could procure naming rights and pouring rights. Not surprisingly, there were no companies interested in naming swimming pools, baseball diamonds and gyms. But Coca-Cola was happy (over the Public Health Department’s objections) to secure the contracts for pouring rights in city community centres. We now have Coke and Pepsi dispensing machines conveniently located at City Hall and in our community centres.
There are two more years left in the contract for Coke and Pepsi. In that time 360,000 more plastic bottles will be sold. Where will they end up? In our landfills, streams and rivers, and many will float to the ocean.
We can easily live without Coke and Pepsi vending machines in our city facilities. We have in the past and can do so again.
In summary, the sale of water and sugared liquids in Ottawa city facilities is no longer in the public interest. We need single-use plastic bottles removed from city buildings to reduce the use of bottled water and to have less plastic in our garbage trucks and in our environment. We need less plastic and more life. Let’s stop selling bottled water in city facilities.
The best water in town is on tap.
Clive Doucet and Diane Holmes are former Ottawa City councillors.