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Montreal not to ban bottled water, yet

Convinced that water bottles are clogging landfills, Montreal is pushing for a deposit-based recycling system on plastic bottles instead of crusading alongside other Canadian cities against the presence of bottled water in the city all together.

London, Ontario banned the sale of bottled water in city buildings and arenas on August 18, prompting Toronto, Kitchener, Ontario, and Vancouver to consider similar actions.

While the city has not ruled out the possibility of the ban, Alan DeSousa, responsible for sustainable development within the Executive Committee of Montreal, is hoping that the city will decide to charge consumers a deposit tax on bottles of water to add a monetary incentive to recycle. The plan was outlined in a proposal presented to the Quebec government on February 19.

The committee has yet to hear back from the province about the proposal.

Improving Quebec’s recycling program would alleviate the need to ban bottled water, explained Richard Goulet, spokesperson for Recyc-Quebec, a society created by the provincial government to help implement recycling and waste recovery programs.

“The big issue is not whether it is good or not to cut down on [bottled water] circulation, it’s whether we can increase our recycling programs,” he said.

Goulet said that over one billion bottles were in circulation throughout the province, but that recycling rates of up to 70 per cent meant that most did not end up in landfills.

Zoe Maggio, head of the anti-privatization Water Program at the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, was not convinced that recycling nullifies the negative environmental impact of bottled water use.

“It’s really important to consider the other environmental impacts [of bottled water]– like production and transportation – that are releasing a ton of greenhouse gases into the air,” Maggio said,

She added that as low as 33 per cent of water bottles in Canada are recycled.

Safe to drink?

While Maggio maintained that bottled water is not necessarily safer or cleaner than municipal tap water Justin Sherwood, President of Refreshments Canada, the national trade association representing 30 packaged beverage brands, disagreed, refuting claims that bottled water – the safety of which is regulated under Health Canada Food and Drug Act – was tainted.

“To say that because it’s regulated under a different piece of legislation and is therefore inferior is completely false,” Sherwood said about the fact that municipalities monitor inspections of their own tap water.

90 per cent of the bottled water industry is spring or mineral water that undergoes an ozination process before being capped. The remaining ten per cent is taken from a potable water source, such as municipal tap water, demineralized through a multi-million dollar purification process.

DeSousa added that Montreal prioritized a high quality of water, and water fountains in public places.

“Montreal’s water is very good to drink,” he said. “We’re very proud of our water.”

Bottled water all dried up? Grab a soda instead.

Elizabeth Griswold, Executive Director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, called London’s decision to ban bottled water highly symbolic.

“It was an easy decision for them to make it look like they were doing something for the environment, when in fact they were doing nothing,” she said.

Griswold pointed to a study conducted in May by Probe Research Inc., a marketing research company, which showed 70 per cent of consumers who purchased bottled water did so as an alternative to buying other packaged beverages – not tap water.

“[Municipalities] are sending the wrong message at a time when our society is dealing with substantial concern about diabetes and increasing obesity rates,” she said. “People are not going to turn to the tap, they’re going to turn to other packaged beverages.”

Maggio, however, insisted that there was no such correlation.

“There is no evidence that by taking away bottled water as an option, people will resort to sugary drinks,” she said.

The Nestlé Group, Canada’s largest packaged beverages retailer, reported the only sector that showed a decrease in sales in the first half of 2008 was bottled water, down 1.1 per cent.

Sherwood argued that removing the option of bottled water from the market was unfair to consumers.

“Municipal politicians and activists are saying we don’t like this product, and so it shouldn’t exist. Where does that stop? You’re taking away consumers’ right to choose.”