Debt by a thousand (billion) cups

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Part 4:  Money and Our Planet:  How do we squander them?  Let us count the ways

by Theresa Peluso

In my October column I said that Canadian families, with an average debt-to-income ratio of 171 percent, now have not only the highest level of household debt since records were first kept, but also the highest debt of all G7 countries.  I explained how we Canadians are depleting the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate as we accumulate that debt, specifically with respect to food, shelter, transportation, clothing, health and celebrations.

What about beverages; namely, soft drinks, coffee and bottled water?

By now, everyone knows the harm caused by soft drinks:  people don’t experience a feeling of fullness when drinking sugary drinks compared with ingesting the same amount of sugar in solid form, such as a dessert.  Over-consumption of sugar is considered to be a cause of many obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease, and dental decay.  Artificial sweeteners are also problematic if ingested in large quantities.   Fortunately, soft-drink consumption has decreased in Canada, from 104 cans per capita in 2005 to 68 in 2016. While the cost per person is insignificant (at $2 per can or bottle, that’s about $140 per year), the number of containers is extremely significant – 2,380,000,000 containers discarded in Canada alone for a product that is bad for your health!

As for litres of coffee purchased at food service outlets, out of 80 countries, Canada came first in 2015, consuming an average of 152 litres per person per year.  That would explain why 8 out of every 10 cups poured by Tim Hortons is sold in Canada – that amounts to approximately 1.6 billion cups per year.  Looking at this statistic another way, that’s 1.6 billion single-use paper cups per year – just in Canada. Looking at the same number in yet another way, that’s 650,000 trees cut down just to make these cups, 1,500,000 cubic metres of water used in their production, and 11,500,000 kg of waste.  Would this have anything to do with the ubiquity of these cups along our roadsides and in our ditches, our steadily growing landfills and the increasing water conservation alerts? (The above numbers were taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_cup.)

The aforementioned list of environmental impacts doesn’t take into account the idling time spent using drive-thrus, and the resulting air pollution.  A 2006 report titled Double Double Your Drive-thru Emissions, carried out by students of Dr Peter Boxall, University of Alberta, found that daily idling times at an Edmonton-based Tim Hortons averaged about 233 hours/day. (See https://drivethrulies.wordpress.com/tag/drive-thru-statistics/ — then select link from the University of Calgary — edmonton-drive-thru-study (1).doc)

Does this make sense?  Canadians are spending $3.2 billion per year on coffee.  At 300 morning stops to buy a $2 cup of coffee, that comes to $600 per person per year. The $3.2 billion amount doesn’t include the cost of the gas burned while idling (about .25 litres per car), to wait 10 minutes (a total of 533,333,334 hours per year just waiting for coffee) for a product that can easily be made and consumed at home.  And there may be even more costs down the road. The fact that an idling engine doesn’t run at peak temperature results in residue build-up in the car’s cylinders, which reduces fuel efficiency and can even damage engine parts.

Then there’s the problem of bottled water.  If you read the September 26, 2014 CBC article by Kazi Stastna titled Bottle vs. tap: 7 things to know about drinking water, you’d know that Canadians bought 2.4 billion litres of bottled water in 2013, an average of 68 litres per person.  You’d also learn that 3 out of 10 Canadian households drink bottled water at home – when in almost every case, perfectly potable water is available from their taps.

According to a market analysis by Euromonitor International, Canadians purchased 2.4 billion litres of bottled water last year, which comes to 68 litres per capita.  Assuming that the average wholesale price of bottled water is about $1.50, the average Canadian is spending $102 per person per year.  At an average household size of 2.5 residents, that comes to $255 per household wasted on a resource that is available for almost nothing.  And then there’s the environmental cost.

To quote from Kazi Stastna’s article:

Much of the water corporations sell is obtained on the cheap from public water sources. Many provinces do require bottlers to obtain permits to extract this water but charge very little for the privilege.

Nestlé pays a mere $3.71 for every million litres of water it draws from a well near Hillsburgh, Ont., and has permission to withdraw 1.13 million litres of groundwater per day.

Although many companies have tried to cut down on the amount of plastic they use and increase the proportion of recycled and compostable materials, the industry still generates significant waste and consumes water and fossil fuels in the process of bottling and transporting its products — in some cases, from as far as France or Fiji.

Many discarded bottles end up in recycling facilities abroad….

The CBWA (Canadian Bottled Water Association) says plastic bottles account for only one-fifth of one per cent of landfill, but once there, they can take hundreds of years to decompose and may not decompose at all given that most landfills don’t have enough heat, light and oxygen to break down much of anything outside of organic matter.

About 70 per cent of PET drink containers in Canada are recycled, according to the Canadian Beverage Association, although recycling rates vary by province.

Pacific Institute in California estimates that once the water used in the manufacture of plastic bottles is factored in, it takes as much as three litres to make a litre of bottled water.

The Pacific Institute, which conducts research on water use and conservation, has estimated that bottled water is up to 2,000 times more energy-intensive than tap water. In 2006 alone, bottling water for U.S. consumption used the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil and produced 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, it found.

And there you have the sordid story about bottled water.  The report quoted above doesn’t spell out the fact that these bottled water companies often outbid Canadian municipalities for access to their local water resources, thereby depriving access by residents in these municipalities, to a viable supply of water.  At a time when our planet is increasingly experiencing extreme heat and drought, this practice is unconscionable.

Although the amount of money wasted per year on these beverages isn’t huge (approximately $850 spent by the average Canadian on soft drinks, coffee and bottled water), the amount of environmental damage resulting from these behaviours is enormous.  When the solution is so easy, why continue this death by a thousand billion cups – and cans – and bottles?  That $850 could be spent so much more wisely!