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As a way to address the problem of plastic waste, many municipalities and universities across Canada have either instituted or are considering bans on single-use bottled water.

The City of Montreal made headlines last year when Mayor Denis Coderre suggested they were considering a bottled water ban. The City of Toronto approved a plan back in 2008 to eliminate the sale of bottled water on city property, which took effect in 2012 (though there are exemptions for certain locations and special events). Proponents of bottled water bans, which include many environmental groups, argue they reduce waste, cost and carbon footprint.

But are bans on bottled water an effective way to reduce the amount of plastic waste going into Canadian waterways and landfills?

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The University of Toronto, which became a bottled water-free campus in 2011, began looking at the issue of disposable water bottles as a result of student activism. The school spent months discussing a ban and considering alternatives, according to Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services.

"The goal was not to just remove a product from the retail outlets on campus and have everyone fend for themselves," she says. "The goal really was to encourage people back to tap water."

The university began by adding more water fountains and refill stations, while still providing bottled water, and working on outreach campaigns with students so that everyone understood the implications of opting for a reusable water bottle instead of a disposable one. It also removed bottled water for a day and surveyed students about whether they missed having that product available.

"We didn't do it without asking the community whether they would support it [and] it was overwhelmingly positive feedback," says Ms. Macdonald, adding the university has received only one or two complaints in the five years since making the change.

"There was a lot of education and lead-up to the actual removal of the product. We feel that is has been successful here and we haven't driven people toward less healthy options."

University and college campuses are particularly suited to the adoption of new habits because many of the students will be living on their own for the first time. For example, a 2012 survey of Canadian water consumers conducted by water filtration company Brita found that attending school away from home was one of the most common reasons why people first purchased a Brita Pitcher or Brita Bottle.

Using a home filtration system can be a more environmentally-friendly option for those who don't like the taste of tap or fountain water – the company says just one Brita Bottle filter can replace up to 300 500mL plastic water bottles.

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But just how bad is the problem of plastic waste in our environment? A 2017 global report prepared for the International Maritime Organization, the UN agency responsible for preventing marine pollution, found that microplastics (tiny particles of plastic) are turning up in fish and shellfish sold at supermarkets. As well, scientists found that microplastics can absorb or carry contaminants like PCBs, pesticides and flame retardants, which come into our food system when they're consumed by fish or other sea animals.

Plastic waste in our waterways has become so pervasive that it's led some to suggest there is enough surplus to create an island in the middle of the ocean. During a Pacific Ocean expedition through an area known as "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch," Tyler and his brother Alex Mifflin watched scientists measure the "inconceivably massive" collection of plastic waste gathered in the area by swirling ocean currents. But they found there was an even higher concentration of plastic in parts of Lake Erie and parts of Lake Ontario, per square kilometre of lake surface, than what's sitting at the heart of the garbage patches of the ocean.

Tyler Mifflin notes that disposable water bottles, while only one culprit, create so much waste that they have become a "poster child" for the overuse of plastics.

"They're certainly not the only cause of the problem," adds his brother Alex. "But plastic water bottles are some of the first [pollutants you can] point fingers at, especially in a country like Canada where we have almost universal access to clean tap water."

According to Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, a non-profit social action organization, bottled water bans are important to combat people's growing reliance on bottled water.

Annual sales of bottled water are projected to climb to 465 billion bottles of water globally by 2020, while Canadians purchase about 2.4 billion litres of bottle water every year – or about 68 litres per person, says Ms. Barlow, who is the Council's chair.

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To Ms. Barlow, the places where water bottle bans have been successful have been the ones which, like the University of Toronto, had an education plan in place as they rolled out the changes, to make the reasons for such bans and their benefits clear.

"You're not being asked to replace bottled water with something not safe; you're being brought in to the solution," she says.

"You can change your habits. The overload of plastic in our world is a really serious problem, and the one place we can start is there."


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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