Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bottle ban fails basic science test

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Meet the new temperance movement. St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal wants to control public drinking, and not just the hard stuff.

Last Tuesday, Coun. Vandal, chairman of the public works committee, convinced his colleagues to investigate an end to the sale of all drinks in plastic bottles at vending machines and cafeterias at city hall, arenas, community centres and other city-owned facilities. Staff are to report back in October on the feasibility of such a move.

Mr. Vandal's proposal manages a trifecta of trendy North American municipal government dirigisme: a ban, an attack on plastic and an attempt to direct what people drink. Last month, Mr. Vandal was tossing around the notion of a plastic bag ban similar to what Toronto recently announced. Bottled water has been almost universally condemned. (Although Winnipeg city council rejected such an idea in 2008.) And of course everyone's worried about sugary drinks these days. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, wants to ban soda servings larger than 16 ounces. But Mr. Vandal appears to be breaking new ground by combining all this into one sweeping prohibition.

Arguing that plastic bottles are recycled at lower rates than aluminum cans, and because a ban on bottled water alone would simply encourage Winnipeggers to seek out bottled pop and sports drinks as replacements, Mr. Vandal proposes to ban every plastic bottle in sight. Cans would still be permitted, presumably. "This would be a way of leading by example on the environmental front," he told the Free Press earlier this week.

Mr. Vandal's effort is objectionable on many levels. First and foremost is the notion of personal choice. People pick between bottles and cans for many reasons. One significant advantage to bottles is that they can be re-closed and saved for later. A can must be finished once it's opened. Is it Mr. Vandal's intention that all drinks purchased at city-own facilities be consumed immediately? And if so, why?

His proposal would also cut off at the knees a province-wide campaign to improve return rates for beverage containers of all kinds. Motivated by the province government's goal of recycling 75 per cent of all drink containers and funded by a two-cent per container fee paid by industry, the Recycle Everywhere program is unique in Canada. As spokesman John Challinor pointed out in a letter to the editor this week, provincial recycling rates for drink containers improved six per cent in the program's first year of operation. And with Winnipeg now on-board, this should continue to grow. The 75 per cent objective may be a long way off, but it makes no sense to cripple the effort after just one year.

Finally, and most problematic for Mr. Vandal, is the scientific aspect. If his goal is to force everyone at a city-run building to drink out of cans rather than plastic bottles, he'll need overwhelming evidence cans are better for the environment. So where is it?

It's true return rates for aluminum cans are slightly better than plastic bottles, although this may change as Recycle Everywhere expands. But there's more to the environment than recycling. According to The Cambridge-MIT Institute, the energy required to create an aluminum can is 9.0 megajoules per litre of capacity. A glass bottle requires 8.2 MJ of energy to hold the same amount of liquid. And a plastic bottle just 5.4 MJ. (See for yourself at www-g.eng.cam.ac.uk/impee, select "recycling plastics" under Topics.) Mr. Vandal's plan will thus result in significantly greater energy consumption as Winnipeggers are forced to use more cans. Not the smartest way to help the environment.

Reduce, reuse and recycle may be wise words for everyday living. But the suggestion plastic bottles be banned from city buildings is something that deserves to be tossed and buried forever.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 A14

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