Trust Your Tap

by Carl Duivenvoorden ( Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

Imagine this: a person comes into your yard with a small plastic bottle, goes to the tap on the side of your house, fills the bottle, knocks on your door and sells you the filled bottle for a buck.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but for much of the bottled water available in Canada today, it’s not very far from the truth either. Most bottled water is not very different from what comes out of our tap. But it comes with a big environmental pricetag.

A bit of background

The water industry took off a couple of decades ago, when entrepreneurs across Canada started selling spring water as a refreshing alternative to tap water. It came mostly from local springs, and was sold in large jugs by small businesses.

But much has changed since. After many takeovers and consolidations, just 4 large suppliers with extensive distribution networks dominate the Canadian market: Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestle.

Other things have happened too. The words ‘spring water’ have gradually disappeared from most bottled water labels. The well-publicized disaster in Walkerton, Ontario shook public confidence. The possibility that tap water might be unsafe has crept into our thinking, even though Health Canada indicates there is no evidence to support this belief.

What’s in that bottle?

Most people are surprised to learn that much of the bottled water we buy is actually filtered tap water from municipal sources. And we’re even more surprised to learn that that source is often far away. Read the label closely: one popular brand I checked originates northwest of Toronto. Another comes from the municipal supplies of Montreal, Vancouver or Peel (Mississauga), Ontario. Kind of makes you wonder what’s wrong with good old NB water, doesn’t it?

It is possible to still find bottled spring water – but you need to look for the specific words ‘spring water’ or ‘mineral water’ on the label.

The environmental cost

Bottled water has a huge ecological footprint, mainly for three reasons.

The first is transportation. Most water on the market comes from far away. Basically, it’s drawn from a tap, treated, bottled and trucked hundreds of kilometres. A new Nestle plant that opened last fall in Indiana produces one million single-serve bottles per day. That’s enough to fill a lot of trucks, which rumble down a lot of roads spewing out a lot of pollution. That’s just one plant.

Those bottles and the packaging around them are the second environmental cost. Sure, they’re recyclable – but many end up in landfills all the same. Even packaging that is recycled takes energy to produce and energy to recycle. Reducing, the first of the three Rs, is the most important: it’s always better than recycling.

Finally, much energy is used to keep bottled water cold. Coolers and vending machines that dispense, display and sell water consume energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

What you can do

The most environmentally friendly water you can drink comes from your tap. Having a jug in your fridge keeps it cold and gets rid of the chlorine flavour. If you want to go a step further, you can get a home filtering system. If you can’t live without bottled water, choose local spring water and buy it in large refillable containers.

Beyond home, why not carry a drinking bottle of tap water, and serve chilled tap water at your workplace meetings. Steer your school-age kids to fountains instead of vending machines. And if you’re a municipal leader, why not install more public water fountains.

In this country, we are blessed with an abundance of clean water and safe municipal systems. That means just about everyone can safely say no thanks to bottled water and trust the tap.