(Photo by Chris Jordan, EcoToaD)
I have purchased exactly two single-use bottles of water in my 56 years. The first time, I was so disgusted by the dank, plasticky, sodium taste that I couldn’t finish it. The second time, I had scraped my calf pretty badly while riding my bike, and I needed something to wash out the wound before taping it up. When I go to some event, if I ever need a drink of water and have not brought my reusable bottle with me, I invariably try to find a water fountain. Failing that, if there’s a bar of some kind, I ask the person there for a glass of ordinary tap water. And failing that, I’ll use the washroom sink. What I will not do is pay anywhere up to five dollars for a bottle containing two cents’ worth of water. That would be idiotic.
Access to clean, drinkable water should be considered a basic human right. Our bodies are mostly water, and horrible things happen to people who become dehydrated or who drink water that is brackish or loaded with bacteria. Often, though, the stuff in bottles is the only source people have available, whether due to their remoteness or poverty or lack of infrastructure. Since one of the functions of government is to protect citizens, this has to change. We need good plumbing if we want a good quality of life.
The trouble is compounded by the fact that the government has given the bottled-water companies access to our aquifers, which they plunder in exchange for a payment of a few pennies per million litres of the wet stuff. (I’m looking at you Nestlé; I’m looking at you, Coca-Cola.) They then sell the water to consumers at a clear profit of billions upon billions of dollars, in bottles that require three times as much water to produce as are in the bottles themselves, plus a lot of oil. The consumers then discard the bottles—again, billions upon billions of them—which get dumped into ditches, landfills, and ironically, the lakes and rivers that are a source of much of our water supply. On average, 2.5 million bottles are thrown away every hour.
Once the bottles have been thrown out, they’re no longer our problem, right? Out of sight, out of mind? Well, no, actions have consequences, even if they’re not necessarily immediate. The garbage doesn’t just disappear, and since we’re talking about plastic here, it also doesn’t decompose within our lifetimes. Every piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists, whether in solid form or, if it’s been incinerated, in the form of hydrocarbons and particulate in the air. No matter, though. It’s Somebody Else’s Problem. Unfortunately, those “Somebody”s are your kids, and eventually their kids.
(Graph from Container Recycling Institute)
There is an excellent article by Alissa Walker at Gizmodo.com, titled “Stop Drinking Bottled Water”. Not only are there links to other related stories, but Walker also has answers for those who are averse to drinking tap water, and she raises a number of points and makes a number of worthwhile suggestions about how to handle the very serious problems caused by the manufacture and sale of bottled water. If I may, though, I have a solution of my own.
It would be very difficult to ban bottled water locally. Such bans generally have to be done at the provincial or state level, or even nationally, in order to be practical. If an outright ban is not possible, I think we need to levy a one-dollar deposit on each single-use bottle of water, redeemable for 50 cents upon return to any retail outlet that sells them. Merchants would then be reimbursed by the government, while the bottles would be shipped back to the manufacturers (at their expense) for recycling. The other 50 cents of the dollar would help pay for administrative and other costs associated with the program, as well as maintaining, improving, or building potable water infrastructure where needed. This would have four other measurably beneficial effects:
1) It would discourage the purchase, and eventually the manufacture, of bottled water. This would in turn also help us to conserve our water for more worthwhile purposes.
2) Even though merchants would be fully reimbursed by the government, the resulting paperwork and other headaches would discourage them from selling bottled water in the first place.
3) It would quickly eliminate a major source of litter that is ruining our environment. I’d even grandfather previously sold containers into the system and open the landfills to bottle-hunters. Payment would come out of the second 50 cents of the one-dollar deposit.
4) It would give homeless people, children, and the working poor a reasonable and useful supplementary income from collecting the bottles from ditches, campsites, and other places where they’ve been disposed of. A five-cent return was OK for pop and beer bottles back when I was a kid, but nowadays that is a meaningless sum, whereas 50 cents a bottle is nothing to be sneezed at, especially when you’ve scavenged several hundred of them.
So there it is: several problems solved at once with just one law. Reduce, reuse, recycle.