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Getting off the bottle

In Manitoba, campuses have led back-to-the-tap parade

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/2/2011 (2364 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It tanked at Winnipeg city council, garnered so-so support elsewhere in the province, but found fans at a trio of local universities.

And with the province now considering changes to its own policies, there may be some fizz left in Manitoba's bottled water debate.

In Manitoba, campuses have led back-to-the-tap parade

In Manitoba, campuses have led back-to-the-tap parade

A few years have passed since the bottled water discussion heated up, focused mainly on the environmental waste of used-and-tossed bottles. Communities like Toronto, Vancouver and Charlottetown have taken steps to ban single-use bottles in some city buildings and Winnipeg briefly weighed the pros and cons of a ban in 2008.

Winnipeg's proposal was ultimately scrapped, but in 2009 the University of Winnipeg became Canada's first university to ban bottled water on campus. Two other local universities -- Brandon University and the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface -- followed suit. The Winnipeg School Division entered the fray earlier this year when trustee Mike Babinsky proposed a ban on all plastic drink containers, a pitch that was sent off for consultation.

But bottle ban take-up has been limited elsewhere in Manitoba, with only a few communities pledging to eliminate the bottle in favour of tap water.

Last fall, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Manitoba called on the province to 'take back the tap." In a report presented to Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie, the group pointed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent filling cooler jugs and urged Manitoba to follow the lead of Nova Scotia, which last summer decided to stop buying bottled water in all departments where potable tap water is available.

"(Minister Blaikie) was certainly sympathetic to where we were coming from," said David Jacks, resource co-ordinator for CFS Manitoba. The group is one of those organizing Bottled Water Free Day events March 10.

The province spent roughly $745,000 on bottled water from 2004 to 2010, according to information from the province's procurement services branch.

Most went to large cooler jugs, but nearly $168,800 was spent on single-use bottles, more than 700,000 of them over a five-year span.

Water-cooler spending varies by ministry: The figure ranges from nearly $1,600 in Aboriginal and Northern Affairs in the last calendar year to more than $17,000 in Finance, based on numbers collected from half a dozen provincial departments by the Free Press. Manitoba Conservation did not respond to the request.

CFS Manitoba's pitch may have found some traction: The province is in the early stages of reviewing its bottled water purchasing policy, a spokeswoman said this week, and hopes to make an announcement sometime this spring.

Winnipeg's new $300-million water treatment plant came online at the end of 2009, offering up safer and better-tasting water. But the issue of bottled water in city buildings hasn't come up again.

Mayor Sam Katz's office hasn't stocked single-use bottles since 2008, but still uses communal coolers. A spokesman said that's because the office, built decades ago, doesn't have kitchen facilities. On the whole, the city spent more than $13,000 filling water coolers at various departments last year, though just $125 more went toward single-use water bottles.

Groups looking to phase out bottled water need to make sure tap-water infrastructure is up to snuff, said Jacks. He pointed to the legislature, where fountains are hard to find and don't always work well, if at all.

Many offices -- the Free Press included -- use mainly water coolers, with fountains underused or out of the way.

"It's so easy to get bottled water, so why maintain water fountains? Why use water fountains? Why make sure the pipes are clean and safe?" said Jacks. "That's the type of culture we're hoping to help change and shift."

Communities or schools wanting to ditch the bottle may be stymied by beverage exclusivity contracts, said Elly Adeland, campaigns coordinator for the Polaris Institute. The research and advocacy group has gone after the bottled water industry in recent years, arguing municipal water is safer and can be more accessible. The institute does not disclose where it gets its funding, Adeland said.

More than 80 municipalities around Canada have brought in bottle bans of one kind or another, according to the institute. Altona, Shoal Lake and Dauphin have all made commitments, said Adeland. Brandon made a similar pledge for its city hall, said Jacks.

"We felt that we have good water," said Altona Mayor Mel Klassen, who said with the amount of plastics going into landfills, it "just didn't make sense" to use bottled water. The community swapped to tap water at its municipal office four years ago, he said.

What remains to be seen is whether Manitobans on the whole are kicking the bottle, or embracing it.

The latest Statistics Canada data showed Winnipeggers drinking more bottled water, not less. In 2007, 41 per cent of those who had access to municipal water -- the vast majority of residents -- said they drank primarily bottled water at home, up 10 per cent from 2006. Across Manitoba, 37 per cent of people did so, up eight per cent.

And after the initial negative publicity, there are signs bottled water sales might be picking up again. U.S. trade publication Convenience Store News reported sales dropped by more than 10 per cent in 2009, and blamed the weak economy. But last year, sales bounced back four per cent, with three per cent growth expected for 2011.

When it comes to water bought in cooler jugs, as compared to single-use bottles, the debate may be more about money than the environment.

Jon Stewart, owner of the Culligan franchise in Manitoba, said the cooler jugs used by the chain are sanitized and reused for up to a year, then recycled at the end of their lifespan, though it still takes a driver to deliver and collect them. Culligan uses treated tap water, removing additional solids as well as chlorine, said Stewart.

For students, the bottled water issue centres on privatization and human rights, Jacks argued. Environmental concerns are on the radar, but "people really understand that water should not be a commodity," he said. "It's a basic human right and a basic human need."


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