You know you’re a 1990s kid if you remember bottled water. Back in the crazy days between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, fictional teens went to Degrassi High, America dropped bombs on Iraq and people actually paid for water taken from public sources and put into disposable bottles.
Wait, all of those things are still happening? That’s nuts.
Most Canadians have perfectly good water pouring out of our taps, and drinking it doesn’t require the wasteful practice of shipping plastic bottles around the country or world. And yet, the Canadian bottled-water industry – lead by Nestlé with its Pure Life, Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Acqua Panna and Montclair brands – generates $2.5-billion in annual sales.
March 22 is World Water Day, so it seemed like a good time to consider why we spend billions every year on a product that is virtually free for most. (Toronto water enthusiasts might also check out the Water Docs film festival, which is at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema from March 29 to April 2.) Here’s a short list of reasons why people in Canada are – or aren’t – drinking bottled water right now.
Because: It’s a fashion statement
You’ve seen the billboards: Jennifer Aniston clutching a bottle of Smartwater, with an expression suggesting that if the rest of us drank the brain-enhancing liquid, we would have thought to star in a 1990s sitcom for a million dollars an episode.
Aniston (who also devotes her time to many worthy charities) is one of a host of celebrities using their good names to promote bottled water. Idris Elba also shills for Smartwater, Mark Wahlberg for AQUAHydrate and Ariana Grande for Wat-aah!, a brand aimed at children aged six to 13. Donald Trump even has a water, Trump Ice, served at the President’s hotels, restaurants and golf clubs.
But despite celebrity endorsements contributing to the image of bottled water as cool, sexy and smart, restaurateurs say it has gone out of fashion. Frédéric Geisweiller, owner of Le Sélect Bistro in Toronto since 1977, says the 1990s were bottled water’s trendy heyday.
“There was a scene in a movie by Robert Altman, The Player, about Hollywood producers,” Geisweller remembers. “And in it, they would go to a restaurant and order bottled water like you would order a fine bottle of champagne, and compare labels. That probably marked the height of the fashion of bottled water.”
Geisweiller says that demand for bottled water at Le Sélect has been dropping for at least a decade, which coincides with the postrecession restaurant renaissance, when bottled water (along with tablecloths) became uncool.
But as disposable bottles have become politically unpopular, the market finds a way to capitalize on that, too. Reuseable bottles are now a mark of money and style, like the double-walled stainless-steel S’well bottles used by the richest person in your yoga class, which start at $40.
Because: It’s forbidden
In 2009, Bundanoon, Australia, became the first municipality in the world to ban the sale of single-use bottled water, followed by Concord, Mass., in 2013 (the ban is still in effect in both towns). Around the world, dozens of campuses have eliminated bottled water for sale. Music festivals and performers have long been encouraging fans to bring their own reusable bottles to fill up at water stations, and some festivals – such as Caloundra in Australia, Riverfest in Ontario and Pickathon in Oregon – have banned single-use bottles and cups entirely.
Successfully ridding a town, campus or festival of bottled water requires thinking ahead about how to make free water easily available. In the old days, that used to be expected.
Because: Public access is limited
My neighbourhood park has a water fountain, but it doesn’t work. For Mike Nagy of Wellington Water Watchers, that broken fountain is indicative of a larger problem: that fewer and fewer public facilities provide free water, and fewer and fewer people expect it.
Nagy points to Hamilton’s new football stadium, Tim Hortons Field, as an example. Built with funding from all three levels of government, it opened to the public in 2014 with no drinking fountains, which to Nagy is “another great attempt to monopolize hydration.”
Sometimes, when he’s speaking about the importance of affordable, clean water, some people don’t even realize they already have access. “We went into schools talking about potable water. A lot of children didn’t even know that water in the school was potable. Most of the fountains had gone into such disrepair,” Nagy says.
Wellington Water Watchers is a non-profit which protects and promotes clean water, and the good news is that advocacy by groups such as it do have positive effects. “A lot of school boards are taking back the tap,” says Nagy, the group’s volunteer chair. And, following complaints, Tim Hortons Field was retrofitted with water fountains, paid for by the City of Hamilton.
Because: They fear tap water
Some people drink bottled water for aspirational reasons, but others believe it’s safer than tap. Well, Health Canada is in charge of such things and states that the quality standards of tap and bottled water are “similar.”
The federal agency regulates what is and isn’t considered acceptable in public tap water, then gives the job of monitoring their flow to municipalities. In Toronto, water is tested every six hours to confirm the absence of harmful bacteria.
No government body is in charge of testing bottled water, which is classified as food and subject to the Food and Drugs Act. Processing plants are inspected annually by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and any additional testing is voluntary.
If the two sources are equally safe to drink, it’s not reflected in the cost. On a recent visit to a Toronto supermarket, Evian was $2.49 for 1.5 litres, Smartwater was $2.99 a litre and Fiji (which is actually shipped from Fiji) was $2.49 a litre. Tap water costs about a tenth of a cent per litre.
Because: It’s a necessity
For Indigenous people in Canada, drinkable tap water is too often unavailable: There are 618 First Nations in the country and on any given day, 150 of them are under a Boil Water Advisory (some of which have lasted years, even decades). During the 2015 federal election, then-candidate Justin Trudeau promised to end all BWAs on First Nations within five years, but Danika Billie Littlechild, a lawyer who lives in Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, says that pledge doesn’t go far enough.
Littlechild says there’s an important semantic distinction between promising to end BWAs and making sure everyone has clean water. “In Alberta, almost half of the First Nations homes are not connected to water-treatment facilities,” says Littlechild from Ottawa. There for a UNESCO conference, she was excited to take a bath in her hotel room, something she’s unable to do at home.
“The facilities that exist on reserves across Canada are actually quite few and far between, in terms of how many homes they actually serve,” Littlechild says. “For example, in Ermineskin Cree Nation, there are about 600 homes and only 100 of them are piped into the water-treatment facility. All of the other homes are using well water, which is untreated.”
So ending the BWA there would help 100 homes, but doesn’t guarantee clean water for the other 500. A permanent solution requires more than simply patching up existing infrastructure, which is often just a temporary fix.
Littlechild sees opportunity in the lack of infrastructure. “To me, it doesn’t have to be a sad or angry story. We can be innovative because we are setting it up for the first time,” she says.
“We can make a quantum leap here in how we manage water, by having facilities that are way more cutting edge and in making sure that Indigenous peoples have the kind of water-management governance model in place that actually reflects who they are and what they value about water.”
Last week, when announcing a provincial pledge of $100-million toward clean water for First Nations, Alberta’s Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan said he’d be “working with the communities to help them determine priorities,” for the funds, a promise that’s just as important as the money itself.
In the end, arguments by lobby groups such as the Canadian Bottled Water Association that their product is a healthy alternative to soda, juice, coffee or energy drinks just don’t hold up. The truth is, to drink the bottled stuff when one has access to clean tap water is simply indefensible – financially unsound, environmentally wasteful and just plain wrong.