The move to ban commercially bottled water is gaining public support, particularly in Canada where private companies can pump it from aquifers at a tiny cost and sell it for a huge profit. Bottled water is not necessary, not better for you, and every bottle takes three bottles worth of water to produce it. This is apart from the sheer pollution of all those discarded plastic bottles, many of which end up in landfill. In Canada, we have the world’s second largest supply of renewable fresh water, although two thirds of it is locked up in polar ice, glaciers, and other inaccessible places. And, 60 per of the water is in rivers flowing north, away from 85 per cent of the population. But even with all that, we still come fourth in available, renewable fresh water. Most of our tap water is clean and safe, fluoridated to fight tooth decay, and reasonably priced. The bottled water companies would have you believe otherwise, portraying their product as delicious, healthy, and part of an upscale lifestyle.
Bottled water is convenient, but it really doesn’t take much effort to fill your own metal drinking bottle from your own tap. And, urge your municipality to consider bringing back public drinking fountains!
A lot of Canadians anger is focused on the Swiss multinational Nestle, which has licences to take water from lakes, rivers, and aquifers at very low cost: $3.71 per million litres in Ontario, for example. Ever since it tried to convince mothers in the developing world to feed their babies formula instead of breast milk, the company has provoked the ire of right-thinking people. These latest shenanigans won’t improve Nestle’s corporate image and a petition asking the Ontario government to revoke Nestle’s license has attracted thousands of signatures.
Nestle’s various permits in Ontario allow it to take up to 20 million litres of water every day. The company claims that it wants “continued engagement with the community,” but the community of Aberfoyle, for example, would prefer to see the licence revoked. “Water should be for life, not for profit,” says Wellington Water Watchers. And, in the middle of this summer’s drought, which saw fire bans throughout the province, Nestle bought a well in Elora, Ontario, out from under residents who had planned to purchase it to protect their groundwater.
Some people would like to see all water extraction for bottling banned, but this is unlikely to happen while First Nations rely on bottled water for supplies. The problem often is that Nestle gets permits to extract water on public land, water that communities depend on, and then sells it back to them in plastic bottles.
It’s not just Nestle, of course. There are 117 different bottled water companies in the world. But in countries with a reliable water supply and decent regulations, there is no need for bottled water. Aquafina, the world’s biggest-selling bottled water brand, has admitted that its product is tap water in a bottle. Half the bottled water sold in the US is simply purified tap water, and furthermore, bottled water is subject to less stringent hygiene controls than tap water. Those controls don’t always work. Cities like Flint, Michigan, with its contaminated municipal supply, are exceptions, and residents there depend on bottled water, even at the same time as they are still paying for their poisonous water. And, recently, the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, was granted a special permit to divert water out of Lake Michigan because its own aquifer is contaminated with radium. The city is outside the Great Lakes watershed and the Mayor of Leamington, Ontario, took to Twitter to object fiercely to this bending of the rules. Waukesha must return 100 per cent of the water, filtered through the Root River, a tributary of Lake Michigan. We discussed the problem of US entities demanding access to Canadian water in our blog on 21 March, 2014, “Sucking Canada dry.”
In drought-hit California, Nestle and Walmart continue to extract water and sell it. Starbucks voluntarily stopped its water bottling activities in the state. Although much of the information is kept secret, to protect Nestle’s commercial interests, reports have revealed that in one creek, Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest, water extraction has lowered the creek level by 20 per cent. And in the state capital, Sacramento, after a four-year drought, Nestle was paying the same rate (65 cents per 470 gallons) as local residents to draw 80 million litres of water a year from aquifers while individuals were under a water ban. There will always be profiteers who make money from other people’s water-deprived misery. “Jug runners” buy flats of cheap water at Costco in Canada, and then re-sell it in thirsty California for a huge profit.
Famously, it was Nestle’s former CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe who declared that “water is not a human right.” He later clarified that he was referring to the use of water for swimming pools, golf courses, and so on, and not to human drinking water but the damage was done.
Earlier this year, Nestle tried to improve its corporate image by voluntarily disclosing that it had found slave labour in its supply chain in Thailand. Shrimps used in Fancy Feast cat food were being harvested and processed by modern-day slaves. The company has promised to work to improve the conditions its products are produced in, but it didn’t act quickly enough to prevent being sued in the US over its use of child labour in cocoa processing in Ivory Coast.
Many activists try to avoid buying any of Nestle’s thousands of brands, which can be difficult as the Swiss company’s corporate tentacles extend everywhere. In Canada, in addition to Nestle brand product, including popular chocolate bars like Coffee Crisp and Big Turk, and Nescafe and Nesquik, Nestle also owns Haagen-Dazs, Purina, Buitoni pasta, Carnation, Gerber, Good Start, Lean Cuisine, Perrier, San Pellegrino, and Stouffer’s. I weep tragically at the loss of Haagen-Dazs too but there are plenty of other good, Canadian ice creams like Kawartha Dairies.
It may not be enough just to avoid Nestle Pure Life water, but it’s a good start….