How Destructive are Plastic Bottles?
By Muniyra Douglas
Transcribed by Tiffany Trinh
March 22nd is commemorated as World Water Day. According to statistics, billions of plastic bottles end up in Ontario landfills every year. This pollution effects natural landscapes, lakes, wildlife and human water consumption.
In this VIBE TALK interview, Correspondent Muniyra Douglas speaks with Ashley Wallis; Water Program Manager at The Environmental Defence located in downtown Toronto. The Environmental Defence team strives towards guarding clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities. Ashley discusses water deposit programs, misconceptions about tap vs bottled water, algae bloom, water bottlers and Coca Cola’s plans for 2030.
Muniyra: In November of 2017, you held a water deposit program. Can you give us some details on the initiative?
Ashley: Under our fresh water works, we’ve been advocating for Ontario to adopt a deposit return program for single used plastic bottles. We launched this campaign about two years ago. In November, we hosted a series of bottle collection events around the GTA, where we encouraged people to bring their used empty plastic water or pop bottles to us and we’d give them ten cents. Part of that was to demonstrate how deposit systems work. Though, some people are already familiar with deposit systems because we have them with beer, spirit and wines in the province. If you buy a beer you pay an extra fee of ten cents and if you bring that empty bottle back to the store you end up getting your money back. Deposits end up incentivizing proper recycling behaviour. We want to see this system move beyond the alcoholic beverages sector and into other beverages as well. Right now, out of the three billion plastic water bottles that are sold in Ontario every year, less than half end up getting recycled. That means 1.5 billion bottles end up littered in our environment and many of those end up in our lakes and rivers.
Muniyra: Ontario is one of the few provinces that doesn’t have a water deposit program. Why is it that the government is so reluctant to support the program?
Ashley: Manitoba and Ontario are the only two provinces without deposit return programs for these kind of beverages, including water bottles. Ontario recently adopted a new piece of waste legislation called the Waste-Free Ontario Act, which is moving towards a model where the government is going to be left prescriptive about the kinds of systems that will collect waste and instead the industry is going to be responsible for collecting a certain amount of it. They’re basically saying: We don’t want to set the program, we’ll set a target. 75% of bottles will need to be collected and industry can do what they want to do to make sure that that happens. The challenge is that industry has told us they’re not interested in supporting a deposit return program, but we know from what we see in other jurisdictions, in other countries and other provinces, the best practice is deposit systems. It’s really the only way to receive recycling and recovery rates of 80-90%.
Munyira: What are some common misconceptions surrounding tap water vs bottled water?
Ashley: Tap water is actually tested more often compared to bottled water. The city of Toronto actually tests its water for about 300 potential contaminants every 5-6 hours. They’re testing their waters on a very regular basis. One study that was done in Canada a few years ago found that some water bottle implants are actually inspected once every three years. You may think you’re getting cleaner and safer water when you’re getting it from the bottle but that isn’t necessarily true. Often, bottled water is just expensive tap water. There is a few brands that actually end up buying municipal water. They take it through a remineralization process to give it a certain flavour and then sell it back to you, for thousands of times more than what it costed the company to make in the first place.
Munyira: What are some actual concerns?
Ashley: In 2010, apparently Canadian researchers tested about a dozen brands of bottled water and they discovered that 70% of them had a high level of bacteria, I can’t say that in any given point in time that bottled water is not safe. There are definitely some systems in place, bottled water is regulated through our national food and drug administration system (Food and Drugs Act and Regulations), but it is not having the regular oversight that tap water is having in this province. Generally, your better bet is to go with tap and if you’re having a problem because you think your tap water doesn’t taste the greatest there’s a lot of on tap filtration systems you could use.
Munyira: According to the plastic report in 2015, Lake Erie had the largest algae bloom. What is that? And why is this such a concern?
Ashley: Lake Erie, because it’s a partially shallow lake and few other factors, algae which is a perfectly normal and natural part of ecosystems, has a tendency to grow out of control there. We actually saw this problem back in the 1970’s, Lake Erie was considered dead and at that time it was because we were seeing a lot of pollution coming from wastewater treatment plants. Nutrients such as fertilizer and manure were ending up in the water and causing the algae to grow out of control. We were able to solve the problem in the 1970’s, but in the last decade we’ve seen an increase in these algal blooms again. The main concern with this is that, these blooms are made from a form of bacteria called cyanobacteria which is toxic. It is toxic for people and animals to touch or drink. 2015 was the largest bloom we’ve ever seen, you could’ve see it from space. In 2014, there was actually a bloom that sat right on top of Toledo, Ohio’s water supply. It was the same kind of bloom, but a bit smaller. Due to its location, it actually shut down the drinking water facility in Toledo for three days.
Munyira: In 2016, the Ontario government proposed new rules for water bottlers. What were the original concerns and what were the proposed changes?
Ashley: This started probably in October of 2016, when Nestle outbid a small community in Wellington, Ontario for access to an aquifer well. This is specifically targeting water bottlers to take water directly from groundwater. These aren’t the bottlers who are taking municipal water and taking it through a fun process to resell it back to you, these are people who are directly taking groundwater and putting it in bottles. Nestle does tend to be the poster child for that. There was a massive public outcry, people were arguing it was absolutely ridiculous that a corporation should get access to a well before a community does, so the government proposed three options. The first one, was they’d put a two year band on any new or potentially expanded water bottling operations. Basically, they said whatever we have going on right now, that’s all that will continue to happen for the next two years while we go back and look at some of our regulations. That band is supposed to end in January 2019. The second thing they did was look at the technical regulations. These are the things bottlers need to do in terms of tracking the amount of water that they’re taking and changing the amount of water that they take in a case of a drought. This is a big issue because some of these communities in areas where these water bottlers operate have been under drought warnings or risk advisories in the past. You would get a notice in the mail saying you as a homeowner shouldn’t be watering your lawn anymore right now, but the bottlers would continue to take the same amount of water from the aquifers that they have taken before. There were some changes to the regulation that were made to help improve the security of water for communities. The third piece was that they’d increase the sea for every million litres of water that water bottlers take.
Munyira: In January, Coca Cola announced that the company is looking to increase recycled plastic in their bottles by 50% by 2030. What are your thoughts on that?
Ashley: Coca Cola has suggested that they would like to increase their recycled content in their bottles to 50% by 2030. Globally right now, they’re at about 7% in recycled content. In some ways, it’s a good thing. Having more recycled content is good because it means that we’re not taking brand new plastic material and using them to make a plastic bottle that will probably only be used for a few minutes before it’s discarded. However, it does not address the larger issue, people are still buying tons and tons of these bottles. Even for making them with 50% recycled content, they still end up as waste at the end of their life cycle. It would be better for Coca Cola to support proven solutions that help reduce the amount of plastic bottles that end up in landfills in the environment, such as deposit return programs. That is the way we can keep plastic out of our waterways and out of our environment.
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