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The next time you quench your thirst with a cool, refreshing drink from a disposable plastic water bottle, consider this: if you're an average Canadian, you may have purchased 68 litres of water in the last year.

That's the per capita rate for consumption of bottled water in Canada, according to the Council of Canadians, a not-for-profit social action organization. It translates into 2.4 billion litres of water per year, with a large percentage of the plastic bottles that hold the water ending up in landfills.

Everyone knows that we should all be recycling, but in practice it doesn't always happen.

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"Recycling rates vary depending on the province and the collection system," says Ashley Wallis, program manager, water, for Environmental Defence, a Canadian watchdog group.

"Provinces with deposit return programs recycled on average 75-80 per cent of their bottles," she says. Ontario and Manitoba don't have bottle return programs for water bottles. "Ontario recycles less than 50 per cent," says Ms. Wallis.

"The bottles that aren't recycled end up in landfills, or littered in our lakes, streams, oceans and the rest of the environment."

In Ontario alone, some 1.5 billion water bottles end up in the province's landfills or as litter. "That's about 50 bottles every second," says Ms. Wallis.

One problem is that while much-lauded programs like the Blue Box program, which was invented and pioneered in Ontario, have high participation rates, the programs still fall short when it comes to discarded water bottles.

The province of Ontario passed legislation in 2016 aiming to reduce the amount of waste in all materials, including bottles. And in March of this year, Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change announced Ontario's Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario: Building the Circular Economy. But as legislation like this rolls out slowly, it will take time to minimize the impact of everything that is being thrown away right now.

To add to the complexity, people are drinking more bottled water all the time. The Canadian bottled-water industry generates $2.5-billion in annual sales, and is projected to reach $2.6-billion by 2021, according to global business intelligence company Euromonitor International.

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Yet, in most North American cities, including Toronto, tap water gets high marks for taste and purity. And those concerned about the chlorine content of municipal water (added to disinfect water from pathogens that can cause illness) can also use water filtration systems like a Brita Pitcher filter or faucet-mounted system to reduce chlorine and improve taste.

There are sometimes severe situations where packaged water is necessary. For example, in the recent Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, public water supplies were contaminated or suspect, and breweries and other companies rushed to convert their production lines to provide fresh water to stricken residents.

A number of Indigenous communities in Canada are also forced to rely on imported water, as their treatment plants are either broken or non-existent and industries have polluted their water sources.

But for most Canadians, any convenience offered up by bottled water is offset by the substantial environmental cost. Some people might assume that all those plastic water bottles ending up in landfills aren't doing any harm once they're dumped and buried there. But there can be long-lasting effects, says Ms. Wallis.

"Plastic doesn't decompose, it just degrades. So the plastic that's littered today will still be around 1,000 years from now. One recent study estimated that more than 90 per cent of the plastic ever made still exists in some form on the planet," she says. "As plastic degrades, it breaks into small pieces which can be ingested by fish, wildlife, and even people. Scientists are currently studying the impact these small plastic fragments might have on human health."

Ms. Wallis points out that fish and wildlife can starve because their stomachs are full of plastic instead of food. Wildlife can get tangled in some kinds of plastic, like the plastic six-pack rings that keep bundles of bottles together. "Entanglement can lead to drowning, starvation, or debilitating physical deformities," she says.

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In addition to its detrimental environmental effects, bottled water can impact household finances too. A 1-litre bottle of water can run from $1 to $2.50 or more for a premium brand – a steep price to pay for a product that could spend the next 1000 years in a landfill.


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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