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Message in a Bottle

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Message in a Bottle

It wasn’t so very long ago that Hollywood stars were sporting their designer-labelled water bottles so all the world could witness–and emulate–their fashion-forward sensibilities. Nowadays there’s a new trend afloat: fresh water from the tap.

It wasn’t so very long ago that Hollywood stars were sporting their designer-labelled water bottles so all the world could witness–and emulate–their fashion-forward sensibilities. Nowadays there’s a new trend afloat: fresh water from the tap.

The new eco-consciousness gripping the planet has water drinkers everywhere rethinking their allegiance to the bottled variety of H2O. A Toronto-based website has started a campaign to persuade restaurant-goers to refuse bottled water in favour of tap water. The “Say no to bottled water” campaign (nobottledwater.ca) offers a billfold insert for members to use at restaurants to voice their opposition.

Many city councils have also waded in, turning off the (budget) taps for bottled water and exhorting their councillors and staff to drink municipal water instead. Toronto mayor David Miller ordered jugs of tap water be served at council meetings and press conferences, saying that “bottled water is totally unnecessary.”

Even community groups are diving into the debate. Leaders of many associations are telling their members to avoid bottled water unless there is no alternative.

The new tap-water aesthetic has caught a current of popularity based on three main factors: personal health concerns, moral/economic issues, and environmental repercussions.

It’s Good for You, Right?

In a 2001 study, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) confirmed the widely held belief that consumers associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. But the WWF scientists found that in 50 percent of the cases they studied the only difference between tap and bottled water was that the latter contained added minerals and salts, “which does not mean the water is healthier.”

The fact is that if bottled water is not specifically labelled as spring or mineral water, it can come from any source, including a well or a municipal water supply. In Canada more than one-quarter of bottled water consumed is, in fact, filtered tap water.

Furthermore, Health Canada has found that bacteria levels in bottled water increase quickly to maximum levels after six weeks of unrefrigerated shelf life. Tap water, chlorinated at its source, does not have the same shelf-life expiry concerns.

What about the bottles themselves? Last year, William Shotyk, a Canadian scientist working at the University of Heidelberg, released a study of 132 brands of bottled water in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles stored for six months. He found that significant levels of antimony, a toxic chemical used in the bottle’s production, had leached into the water.

Is It Good for Anyone?

The authors of a new book called Thirst (Wiley, 2007) contend that the widespread use of bottled water presents wider threats, “including the commodification of water, the export of water in bulk, and the end of the keystone idea of affordable water as a public trust and human right.”

They ask, “If we…get used to paying whatever price the market will bear for bottled water as a product, will we give up the collective commitment to clean, affordable water as a public service…guaranteed by government?”

Many others are joining the wave of public protest against the groundwater depletion and privatization of water by multinational bottlers, including church groups such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church, United Church, and Unitarian congregations; city councils such as St. Catharines and Charlottetown; and environmental/advocacy groups such as the Council of Canadians and the David Suzuki Foundation.

Is It Good for the Environment?

Aside from the concerns about the commodification of water, the bottled water industry presents many other challenges to our world. For example, according to Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based agency that tracks the exposure of Canadians to pollutants, “The production of one kilogram of PET requires 17.5 kg of water and results in emissions of over half a dozen significant air pollutants.”

In addition, the energy required to transport the bottles to market severely depletes our supplies of fossil fuels and adds to greenhouse emissions. And what happens to that plastic bottle once it’s empty? An estimated 88 percent of water bottles are not recycled. According to the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, Canadians sent 65,000 tons of PET beverage containers, many of them water bottles, to landfills or incineration in 2002.

What does all this mean for the environment? “Approximately 18 million barrels of crude oil equivalent were consumed in 2005 to replace the two million tons of PET bottles that were wasted instead of recycled [in],” according to a report released in February 2007 by the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, DC.

So What is Good for You Then?

Turn on the tap. In Canada we have some of the cleanest water in the world. But if you feel uncomfortable about drinking straight from your tap, or if the water from your municipal source is less palatable than you’d like, there are plenty of at-home treatment options.

However you drink your tap water, you’ll be doing your part to nurture our environment by avoiding the plastic bottle. The next time you go to a restaurant, join the au courant–order some eau de faucet.

Bottled water–other than spring or mineral water–can be from any source (including municipal water supplies) and must show on their labels how they have been treated. According to Health Canada, the following product names must appear on the label:

  • distilled water where treatment includes distillation (vaporization and condensation)
  • demineralized water where treatment, by means other than distillation, results in the mineral content being reduced to less than 10 parts per million
  • carbonated water contains added carbon dioxide, making it effervescent

Canadian Consumption of Bottled Water

  • Canadians spent $652.7 million on bottled water in 2005.
  • Canadians consumed 1.9 billion litres–60 litres per capita.
  • Sales of bottled water increased by 32 percent in 2006 over 2005.

Water Filters

Water filters can remove certain chemicals and improve the taste, odour, and appearance of drinking water. To determine if you need a water filter, have your tap water tested; this will also help you to determine the kind of filter you need.

Water filter systems fall under several general categories:

Particle filters use a membrane–either fibre or ceramic–to screen out or trap particles. The smaller the pore size, the more effective the filter. They will not remove dissolved chemical contaminants such as lead and mercury.

Activated carbon (AC) filters remove organic contaminants, including dissolved substances such as hydrogen sulphide and heavy metals responsible for taste, odour, and colour problems.

Resin filters remove contaminants such as heavy metals as well as minerals that cause deposits in kettles and coffee makers. These filters can be combined with AC filters to remove a wide range of particles and dissolved substances.

Reverse osmosis treatment forces pressurized water through a very fine semipermeable membrane. Impurities are flushed; treated water is sent to a storage tank, then passed through an AC filter before use.

Distilled water systems heat water to boiling point, then cool and condense it back to liquid form, leaving behind minerals and bacteria.

Ultraviolet (UV) light devices shoot UV light at the water, killing bacteria but not filtering lead or other minerals.

Although certification of water filters is voluntary, NSF International, The Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and Underwriters’ Laboratories certify water filtration products. Read the product label and literature to determine what level of filtration it provides as well as for use and maintenance directions.

Water-to-go Alternative

Taking tap water on the road can still be safe and healthy–without the use of a plastic storage container. Companies who are getting hip to the new tap-water consciousness are creating containers using stainless steel. Extremely lightweight and portable, these new age water bottles come in a variety of sizes with a selection of different caps to accommodate every need. For more information check out yourwatermatters.com

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