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Banning bottled water in Vancouver and the Metro Vancouver pledge September 5, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, Focus on Vancouver, food for thought.
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A large portion of my research agenda focuses on water, despite the fact that sometimes some relevant water issues go unnoticed (did you know that 2008 is the Year of Sanitation?). The good thing about studying water is that questions pop always on my mind and there’s always something new to look at.

Being an academic and a blogger, I look at issues through research-trained eyes, and the whole discussion on banning bottled water in Vancouver is one of those debates that attract me. I am hoping to do some research about it in the short term future.

Ianiv and Arieanna

Photo credit: Ianiv and Arieanna

I am particularly drawn to water issues as I’ve done research both in the environmental engineering field (building wastewater treatment plants) and in the environmental studies field (studying water governance and policy). I am trained to examine problems from the social sciences AND natural sciences/engineering lenses.

A few weeks back, Duane kindly invited me to guest post on his blog. We were doing Blogathon and my post examined very briefly the debate on water privatization, but I didn’t delve in depth.

The whole banning bottled water debate in Vancouver touches on two issues. One of them, the commodification and privatization of water. The other one is the potential health-associated risk of consuming water from the tap. Both of these issues would give me enough material to start a new blog. However, I’m going to just focus on one small sub-issue: bottling water for sale and redistribution (and the health effects associated).

We often (but not always) consume bottled water because we feel safer. Sometimes we consume bottled water simply because we don’t have access to tap water at the moment. There are different rationales. However, one associated (implicit) benefit is that we don’t need to worry about our safety and health if we consume bottled water. Is our tap water really all that bad?

When I worked as an environmental engineer, I would get stomach illnesses whenever I would be exposed to wastewater streams. But I have never gotten sick from consuming water from the tap (neither in Mexico nor in Canada). I know, the whole “revenge of Montezuma” joke is based on a perception that potable water in Mexico is really polluted and thus every foreign visitor will get stomach cramps or get ill when visiting if they consume water from the tap. But it has never happened to me (not even now that I’m visiting).

Metro Vancouver is undertaking a project to have people pledge to consume only tap water and reduce the number of plastic water bottles thrown into landfills. I have to say that I wholeheartedly support this initiative. From their website:

Why Metro Vancouver has a Tap Water Pledge
* Metro is committed to reducing bottled water use by 20% by 2010 to reduce the environmental impact of bottled water
* Millions of single-use plastic water bottles (one litre or smaller) ended up in our region’s landfills in 2007
* We want to provide a tangible way residents to support a sustainable practice – using refillable water containers instead of single-use plastic water bottles

[Metro Vancouver: Take the Tap Water Pledge]

The Tap Water Pledge page has information on health risks associated with water, fast facts, etc. that are aimed to help the public understand the rationale behind the project. Interestingly enough, I didn’t find data on the worldwide consumption of bottled water in comparison to Canada and/or Vancouver. I think this would be a broader perspective. From the IBWA statistics page, their 2007 stats report, I found out that Mexico is the second largest consumer of bottled water in the world, with 54.1 gallons per capita (but is this figure per year, per month? If one drinks one litre of water a day, how many gallons is that a year? I hate websites with poor statistics!)

Now, from a social media perspective, I have to say that while I think the page is a good resource, I would probably take a much more “public understanding of science” approach to it. I have to say that it would be fun to undertake this type of project, and it would merge Web 2.0 with sustainability research…. Hmm… good idea!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: For some statistics on bottled water consumption, the International Bottled Water Association has some data. But I couldn’t find anything on Canada. Frustrating.

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Comments»

1. Jennie C. - September 5, 2008

I wish Abbotsford had the same program.

2. Mel - September 5, 2008

I’ve noticed the bottles made of less plastic, but they’re still the same size, so won’t they take up the same amount of room in the landfills?

I’m lucky to live in Chicago, which is known for having good quality tap water. I usually do run it through a filter first, but I haven’t figured out how to install my new filter on my tap without it spraying all over yet, so I’ve been drinking tap water for a week, and it’s not all that bad.

3. trashee - September 6, 2008

Raul – here is a link to StatCan’s latest numbers on bottled water usage. I hear that data for 2007 will be published this January.
http://www.statcan.ca/bsolc/english/bsolc?catno=11-526-XIE#formatdisp

4. Raul - September 6, 2008

@ Trashee – Thanks for the data!

@ Jennie and Mel – Thanks for the comments!

5. star anise - September 6, 2008

I hardly ever drink bottled water. I’ve never had any problems with tap water. I feel like it’s such a waste to buy bottled water all the time. I know some people who won’t touch tap water and I just don’t understand it.

6. Flash - September 7, 2008

I’ve always had an issue with paying for water when it magically comes out of a tap for free. The total times I’ve paid for water are:

1. Backpacking Europe in 1991 – It was a heat wave, and in some cities the tap water is horrid or inaccessible to tourists. If the water was OK in a city, I refilled bottles when I was near a tap.

2. Mexico – Unfortunately a high water table in the Yucatan along with surface pollution has resulted in even the locals being unable to drink the tap water. We do our part by drinking beer instead.

3. At home – My wife has interstital cystitis which is aggravated by the chlorine in tap water, even though there is so little in Abbotsford’s water. We therefore have water cooler for which I refill the 5 gallon bottles at self-serve depots that filter the tap water for $2. Technically I’m paying for water, but I’m not disposing of bottles nor polluting by having it shipped in a truck. I prefer to think that I’m just paying for the filtering; we figured out it was cheaper than using Brita filters at home.

4. On the road – I think we’ve bought bottled water for local convenience stores perhaps a dozen times over the years, and often it is because pop or juice might have been a bad choice at the moment due to my wife’s condition. We always recycle those bottles.

So I can’t say I don’t pay for water ever, but I’m always horrified by how much more often the average person does so as compared to myself. It seems that our region of the world is becoming very green conscious, and yet bottled water is becoming even more popular at the same time.

7. Raul - September 9, 2008

@ Everyone: Metro Vancouver’s next Sustainability Breakfast will focus exactly on this issue! Sep 17th

8. Ryan Cousineau - September 9, 2008

The extent to which bottled water competes as a healthy alternative to pop rather than tap water is grossly underestimated.

My prediction is that if bottled water is banned or substantially taxed in the lower mainland, the net effect will be a very small change in the total number of bottled beverages sold, and a very large transition from bottled water to non-water bottled beverages.


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