Celebrating the beginning of the end of bottled water in Canada

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Exactly one year ago today the City of Toronto became the largest city in the world to pass a comprehensive ban on bottled water, setting off a wave of backlash against bottled water that continues today. Since Toronto's decision many news articles have been written, municipal resolutions passed, university clubs formed and stainless steel bottles sold. To put it bluntly, the last 12 months have not been kind to the big three bottled water manufacturers Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, whose bottled water sales are down while the number of bans continues to increase. Finally, after years of steady bottled water growth, the past year has demonstrated strong public support for the reemergence of the tap.

So where exactly does bottled water stand in Canada right now?

At the time of Toronto's decision to restrict the sale and provision of bottled water in city facilities, and concurrently re-invest in municipal water infrastructure, 15 Canadian municipalities had enacted bottled water restrictions and more than 20 universities and colleges had created bottled water free zones. In many ways the Toronto ban was the result of a longstanding diverse public campaign that successfully raised awareness about bottled water as an unnecessary and wasteful product when the majority of Canadians have access to drinking water from the tap.

Today, 72 municipalities from eight provinces and two territories have implemented restrictions on bottled water. From Charlottetown to Toronto to Vancouver, cities and towns large and small have passed resolutions. Over the last number of months, we at the Polaris Institute have reviewed all 72 municipal policies and uncovered a number of important findings.

Of the 72 municipalities, 11 municipalities passed complete bans on bottled water (meaning that in all city facilities with potable drinking water, bottled water will no longer be sold or provided), 38 municipalities implemented widespread restrictions to cover the sale and provision in most city facilities, and 23 municipalities implemented specific restrictions (such as a ban on the sale and provision in City Halls). Perhaps most importantly, we found that 36 of those municipalities included commitments to re-investing in public water fountains and developing public education campaigns to promote municipal tap water. This means that exactly 50 per cent of municipalities that took on bottled water have also made efforts to re-invest, promote and bring back the public tap.

These individual municipal actions haven't gone unnoticed by the larger municipal associations. Provincially, the Association of Ontario Municipalities (AMO) endorsed bottled water bans to their members, the Northwest Territories Association of Communities (NWTAC) urged their members to phase out bottled water, and at the national level, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) passed a resolution in March 2009 to "urge all member municipalities to phase out the sale and provision of bottled water at their own facilities...."

But, the municipal story isn't the only indicator of bottled water's decline in Canada. Six Ontario school boards have now restricted bottled water, two universities (Memorial University in Newfoundland, and the University of Winnipeg) have eliminated the sale of bottled water on campus (including in vending machines), and countless restaurants, hospitals, and high schools have taken out the bottle. Even public spending on bottled water has come under fire with the startling recent exposure that the Government of Canada spent $15.6 million on bottled water between 2003 and 2008, with $8.6 million of that sum spent in facilities with access to readily available safe drinking water.

So where does the bottle go from here?

We know that more Canadian institutions will continue to ditch the bottle and turn on the tap. In the next 12 months, Canadians should expect to see more municipal restrictions, the incorporation of bottled water issues into school board curriculums, and a province or two committed to ending the use of public funds for bottled water. It's all a sign that Canadians have woken-up to the emerging reality that bottled water has gone from chic to taboo.

However, bottled water companies are not going to simply stop producing bottled water. Let's be honest, there is a lot of money to be made from selling tap water back to residents in plastic bottles. In the face of today's backlash, bottled water companies have increased their advertising and lobbying activities. Nestlé, for example, continues to offer municipalities money for recycling projects on the condition that they rescind their bottled water restrictions. The City of Thorold, Ontario just recently rejected a $90,000 offer from Nestlé to rescind their bottled water ban.

In Canada, at least, the tide has turned. Partially due to the actions of cities like Toronto, bottled water is increasingly viewed as a wasteful product. Younger Canadians, especially, have figured out that tap water is the way to go and when these hydration habits are formed at a young age, the future of the tap looks bright.

Joe Cressy is the Campaigns Coordinator at the Polaris Institute and organizer of the nation InsidetheBottle.org campaign on bottled water.

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