Speeches | It's Time To Shelve Bottled Water

05 May 2009

Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Senator Grant Mitchell: Honourable senators, I rise to draw the attention of honourable senators to an environmental initiative that would be relatively easy to implement and would save the federal government a significant amount of money, thereby saving taxpayers a significant amount of money.

While not having immense impact environmentally, although it will have significant impact environmentally, it will allow the federal government, in addition to capturing that environmental impact, to provide leadership to Canadians by demonstrating that there are many things that each of us can do that do not substantially and significantly change our lifestyles, as it is said all too often. In fact, we can encourage Canadians to take lesser steps that can accumulate to significant impacts in total on environmental, and particularly climate change, policy and problems in our country.

The government has not demonstrated profound leadership on the environmental issue. In fact, the government has demonstrated that its seem without focus. It seems without drive. It is as though ideas and objectives are announced only to spin some kind of sense amongst Canadians that this government does care and is prepared to do something. The government has had had three ministers of the environment in three years. That turnover clearly would break up any kind of direct, sustained leadership that any one of them might have been able to provide but clearly has been unable to provide. The government has had at least three, and it now looks like four, different stages, if I can put it that way, of environmental announcements. I want to say environmental policy, but that truly has not been the case, although they did cancel all the former Liberal government's

climate change initiatives, which probably is their only concrete policy.
The government did bring to Parliament a clean air act, but it was inadequate in its establishment of targets for 2050, targets that were in no way based upon the real science that drives real conclusions about what needs to be done with respect to reducing carbon emissions in Canada and in the world. The government then tried to establish a greater presence in the climate change policy area by announcing its "turning a corner", but over the year since that was announced, the government seems to have done absolutely nothing except establish, although not clearly or rigorously, targets for 2020. Those targets are based on reductions of 2006 levels of emissions, targets which, once again, bear no relationship to the science and to the demands of science for determining what reductions and emissions are necessary under that scientific regime.

Most recently, the government has announced a cap-and-trade initiative for establishing caps on coal-fired electrical plants in Canada. It seems odd that the government would announce only for one particular industry when many industries need to be brought under this umbrella. Given the government's track record, I think most Canadians have little confidence that anything concrete will be done and that this cap-and-trade announcement is only another announcement in an effort to dispel this idea or conclusion that the Conservative federal government wants not at all to do something about climate change.

The initiative I raise in my inquiry concerns water in plastic bottles. This environmental initiative may seem relatively small. I want to see water in plastic bottles no longer used anywhere in Canada except in some places where clearly there is not potable water. I will exclude, for the purposes of this discussion, military operations around the world, particularly, for example, in Afghanistan, where bottled water is left everywhere for military personnel so that the problem of dehydration can be less significant.

The general usage of bottled water creates significant, and some might say profound, environmental problems. Let me give honourable senators statistics on the environmental impact of plastic bottles that hold water for Canadians' use.

One billion bottles of water are consumed by Canadians every year. It takes three litres of water for the production of a single plastic bottle, which contains an average of one litre of water.

The life cycle of the energy involved in creating these bottles is startling. The energy required, the amount of oil to create every bottle is equal to one third of the volume of that bottle. This energy use is exacerbated by the fact that the water is not delivered by pipes that are already in the ground and do not require a great deal of energy to deliver but water delivered by trucks, which exacerbate the amount of carbon emissions.

When we add it all up, the production of the one billion plastic bottles from which the water is consumed by Canadians requires 1.5 million barrels of oil per year. That amount is about the production from the oil sands of one day — one three hundred and sixty-fifth of the production of Canada's oil sands. If we look at it another way, 1.5 million barrels of oil is the equivalent of one-half of one day of all the oil used in that single day in all of Canada. The annual usage of energy to produce bottles is equal to one half of the oil that is used in a single day in Canada. The energy use is not insignificant.

It is compelling that when we look at our Kyoto objective of reducing Canadian carbon footprint emissions by 250 million tonnes of carbon a year, the production of plastic bottles amounts to 5 per cent of that Kyoto objective. Finding 20 other initiatives like this one would have allowed us to achieve our Kyoto objectives. Think about that, honourable senators. Naysayers think that achieving significant climate change objectives such as Kyoto is impossible and will ruin an economy. No, it is not. The challenge is to lead Canadians to the kinds of creativity, commitment and drive with which they have accomplished so much in the past and with which they can accomplish easily, readily, and far more quickly than people imagine, significant climate change carbon reductions.

There are those who will say that recycling mitigates a good deal of the impact on energy and on the environment of these plastic bottles. It is not so. Between 40 per cent and 80 per cent — and it is difficult to specify — of the bottles produced and used are not recycled. That percentage amounts to about 800 million of these bottles a year — because people consume the water from a billion of them — going to landfills. I do not know too many places in Canada that have enough landfill room, and it would not be wise for us to want more landfill. In particular, use of plastic water bottles underlines again the waste of energy.

Even if we could recycle all these bottles, the production of bottles is 2,000 times more energy intensive than tap water. Tap water in Canada is some of the best and healthiest water on the face of the earth. There is absolutely no reason to replace tap water with bottled water from any number of parameters, including environmental, oil, energy, recycling and health.

On the issue of health, people somehow think that bottled water is healthier. It is not commonly known that municipal water can be tested hundreds of times per day. There is a continual testing of municipal water.

On the other hand, bottled water is often not tested frequently at all and companies are required only to follow voluntary testing regimes. Since 2008, only 6 per cent of all bottled water plants have been inspected by federal regulators.

If we want safe water, we should be drinking tap water to be absolutely assured of safety. Clearly, there are exceptions, such as the case of Walkerton. Generally speaking, the water in Canada is exceptionally safe and is not diminished in its comparison to bottled water. In fact, if we want certainty, we should not be drinking bottled water.

Honourable senators, action is being taken by some enlightened governments in this country. Forty municipalities across Canada have implemented restrictions on bottled water already. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities passed a resolution urging their 1,775 members to phase out the sale and purchase of bottled water.

Interestingly, the University of Winnipeg — and we have colleagues here from Manitoba — became the first Canadian university to ban the sale and provision of bottled water on their campus.

The first significant advantage of doing away with bottled water is energy and environmental consequence. Second, we have leadership from important institutions in our country that are already moving to eliminate bottled water.

After one considers the environmental advantage, what does that mean for federal government expenditure advantage? That is an interesting question. The same federal government that wants to take $80,000 of operating grants away from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has spent $15 million over the last five years in federal government departments. Approximately $2.6 million of that money has been spent by the Department of National Defence. The figures do not distinguish whether that money was spent on bottled water for the military in Afghanistan. I recognize that bottled water must be used in Afghanistan. Given that it is not that much money compared to the amount of water I saw people drinking, I expect it is probably in addition. However, even if that bottled water for Afghanistan is included in the $15 million, if it is subtracted, we still have this hard-nosed, "cut, cut, cut" government spending $12.4 million over five years on absolutely unnecessary bottled water.

One might think there would be some sensitivity within the Department of the Environment about using bottled water given its impact on the environment. It is interesting to note the irony that over the last five years they have spent between $110,000 and $150,000 annually on bottled water. The total is getting near $600,000 to $650,000.

Think how many research stations at $80,000 per year that would fund? Do the math. If we had to set priorities, would we rather have research or bottled water that simply is not necessary?

I point out that the Prime Minister's own department, the Privy Council Office, spends over $30,000 annually on bottled water contracts.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: I regret to inform the honourable senator that his 15 minutes have expired. Does he wish to request more time?

I will get right to the point.Honourable senators might wonder how this money adds up to such a large figure. It is because a litre of bottled water costs more than a litre of gas. It is hard to believe.

This inquiry calls upon the federal government to do something for the environment that is so fundamentally dead-easy that I cannot believe and do not want to assume that this government would not jump up and do it. This government could tell taxpayers that it will save them at least $12.4 million over five years and significantly reduce pollution, the carbon footprint of this country and the pressures currently on waste disposal sites around the country.

First, we are asking that further examination be given to the federal government's own recently released figures to determine whether the locations where bottled water was provided by federal agencies and departments are also served by potable tap water. I expect that about 99.999 per cent of them will be.

Second, we would specifically like to see that parliamentary precinct procurement policies also phase out the provision of bottled water where potable tap water is available and appropriate. I am not certain that there would be any place in Parliament where it is not available and appropriate.

Third, we should increase access to tap water and public drinking fountains wherever there is insufficient access on federal government property.

I urge honourable senators to consider this inquiry.

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