Water, water everywhere? Or plastic, plastic everywhere?

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Part 2:  Bags and bottles

by Theresa Peluso

In Part 1 of this topic on how plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes and oceans, I gave an overview of just how big a problem plastic is.  This is a huge problem, and it’s happening everywhere.  What are the more progressive countries doing to restrict the use of plastic?

The United States certainly doesn’t provide a clear model for us to follow.  It’s very true that some states and cities – California, Hawaii, Washington D.C., Austin, Seattle, and Chicago – have taken the courageous step of banning plastic bags in their jurisdictions.  Several other U.S. counties and municipalities impose plastic bag fees.  Unfortunately, some U.S. states have passed laws to BAN bans on plastic bags to prevent local towns and cities from passing their own bans!  These regressive states are Florida, Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, and, as of last December, Michigan.

The first country in the world to ban certain types of thin plastic bags was Bangladesh, which it did in 2002, after finding that they had choked drainage systems throughout the country, thereby amplifying the damage from a series of devastating floods.  China instituted a similar ban in 2008.  Other nations to take this step are France, India, Mauritius Island, South Africa, Italy and Rwanda.  Many other governments and businesses around the world have imposed a tax on plastic bags.  England’s use of plastic bags has dropped 85% since a 5-pence (about 8 Cdn cents) tax was introduced last year.  One supermarket chain in Switzerland found that charging 5 centimes (about 13 Cdn cents) for plastic bags reduced the demand by 90%.

According to a CBC article dated Feb. 22, 2016 and titled Montreal to ban plastic shopping bags as of 2018 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/denis-coderre-plastic-bag-ban-future-montreal-1.3458240), Montreal is joining six other Canadian municipalities in banning single-use plastic bags; namely, Leaf Rapids and Thompson, in Manitoba; Huntingdon, Deux-Montagnes, and Brossard, in Quebec; and Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality, in Alberta.  Regarding the Montreal ban, some exceptions are being made for hygienic reasons or for dry-cleaned items.

A number of retail establishments have signed up to the plastic-bag reduction initiative. Walmart and Shoppers Drug Mart are joining No Frills, Food Basics, and Loblaws in charging 5 cents for single-use plastic bags. Some stores, such as Costco and Ikea, don’t make single-use plastic bags available at all.  When a retailer as huge as Walmart, with 397 stores in Canada that serve more than 1.2 million customers per day, gets involved, an initiative like this creates a huge positive environmental impact and sets an excellent example for others. As consumers, we can contact the managers of the stores where we shop, that haven’t yet joined this initiative, and ask them to recommend to their CEOs that bags be banned or provided for a fee.  It’s true that a number of stores accept film plastic for recycling, but the most environmentally sustainable solution is not to use them in the first place.

Some people argue that not providing free plastic grocery bags simply means that people will buy more plastic bags to line their garbage bins, instead of using grocery bags, thereby not reducing the total amount of plastic consumed.  This is basically a cop-out.

First of all, removing the option of using plastic grocery bags for garbage, helps you to change your attitude to one of minimizing plastic use.  If you decide to use garbage bin liners, you can then more easily try to minimize the number you use.  For example, you can separate your garbage into “dry” and “wet”, and use a compostable (not biodegradable) bag for the dry garbage. (An explanation of the difference between “compostable” and “biodegradable” is provided in the next paragraph.) If you then compost most of your non-animal-based organic waste, you’ll minimize the amount of “wet” garbage left.  This remaining garbage can be placed in a previously used bag (e.g., a milk bag), then stored in the freezer until you put it out for garbage collection. One bonus is that preventing as much plastic as possible from going into your garbage bin (by not buying it in the first place, by re-using it, or by recycling it) will most likely reduce to a third your total output of garbage.

The solution for storing “wet” garbage is to re-use, where possible, all those plastic bags that many products come in:  toilet rolls, feminine hygiene napkins, and facial-tissue boxes (cut the tops off the plastic casing); milk in plastic bags; bags of apples, potatoes, rice in bulk; bags that come with clothing, small household items, sports items, etc.  For people with dogs, there are compostable poop bags available.  Speaking of plastic bags, if you do need to use them, be sure they are COMPOSTABLE, not biodegradable (“biodegradable” means the bags, which contain plastic, just break down faster).  Make sure any bags you buy are certified as compostable – the two labels to look for are BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) or BNQ (Bureau de normalisation du Québec).  See this Globe and Mail article for more information: https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/biodegradable-bags-a-load-of-rubbish/article4316356/?ref=http://www.theglobe.

And don’t get me started on bottled water.  First of all, when taking a refreshing sip from a cold bottle of water, can you, with a clear conscience, justify drinking water taken from another community’s aquifer?  Would you object to a major company buying the rights to your community’s water source, as has happened in numerous communities in the United States and Canada, just to mention two countries? In the case of Aberfoyle, near Guelph, a certain well-known multinational bought the rights to that community’s groundwater, at the rate of $3.71 for every million litres of groundwater.

Here is an excerpt from an article published August 24, 2016:

Is Nestle’s pumping for bottled water shrinking Aberfoyle aquifer? Activists, company disagree

Nestle Canada has a licence to pump up to 3.6 million litres a day from its well in Aberfoyle, Ont. The licence is up for renewal, and opponents of the project are urging the province not to renew it.

“We don’t feel that’s sustainable,” says local environmentalist Mike Nagy. “The aquifer itself is showing stress.” Hugh Whiteley, a hydrogeologist who works with the group, found that the aquifer had fallen 1.5 metres between 2011 and 2015, a period in which Nestle increased pumping by 33 per cent. That level of pumping drew the aquifer down faster than it could be recharged, he wrote in a statement released by Wellington Water Watchers, the group Nagy heads. (end of quote)

In response to a huge outcry from people in the affected area and from concerned Ontarians elsewhere, the provincial government made some basically ineffectual changes, but the problem remains.

Manta, an on-line business directory (https://www.manta.com/world/North+America/Canada/Ontario/mineral_or_spring_water_bottling–C20950DZ/) lists 28 mineral- or spring-water-bottling plants in Ontario alone: Dorchester, Sarnia, Markham, Mississauga (2 plants), Chapleau, Havelock, Stoney Creek, Bowmanville, Port Burwell, Kitchener, Brantford, Hanover, Toronto, Shelburne, Feversham, Concord (2 plants), Etobicoke, Waterloo, Baltimore, Gravenhurst, Guelph, Bath, Alliston, Hamilton, Simcoe.  There are others in Canada, mainly in British Columbia, and many more in the United States, Europe and South America.  (See http://projects.oregonlive.com/bottled-water/ for data on American water-bottling plants.)

To refute the effectiveness of banning bottled water, some reports state that people end up buying bottled soft drinks instead, which not only contain water from other sources, but unhealthy sugars and additives.  The solution is obvious – don’t make these beverages available either, which is what a lot of schools and public facilities are doing.  By making local tap water available (a couple of years ago, Mississippi Mills installed water-filling stations in the Almonte arena and public library), people can quench their thirst for free.  What a concept!

In addition to the human-rights concern; namely, jeopardizing the basic right of people to affordable clean water, there is also a real concern about environmental pollution caused by the plastic bottles themselves.  According to an article in the June 28, 2017 edition of the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change), the number of plastic drinking bottles used and disposed of worldwide has increased from 300 billion in 2006 to more than 480 billion in 2016.  It is expected that, if this trend continues unabated, the number of bottles used and disposed of in 2021 will be over 583 billion.  The Guardian article also provides this information:

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.  New figures obtained by the Guardian reveal the surge in usage of plastic bottles, more than half a trillion of which will be sold annually by the end of the decade.  The demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second, is driven by an apparently insatiable desire for bottled water and the spread of a western, urbanised “on the go” culture to China and the Asia Pacific region. (end of quote)

Yet another environmental problem is carbon emissions resulting from the production of bottled water.  Keith Leslie, in an article in Global News, published a year ago (http://globalnews.ca/news/3003577/too-many-water-bottles-ending-up-in-ontario-landfills-environmentalists/), explains:

The Council of Canadians, a non-profit social action organization, said bottled water is almost 2,000 times more energy intensive to produce than tap water, and questioned the industry’s recycling claims. “While reports on how many of these get recycled vary – many plastic bottles end up in our forests, parks, rivers and lakes and many end up in landfills where they take hundreds of years to break down,” said council chair Maude Barlow.

In her new book “Boiling Point,” which is about what Barlow calls Canada’s “water crisis,” she points out that Canadians buy about 2.4 billion litres of bottled water a year, about 68 litres per person. “The waste footprint of this industry is huge,” she said. “I would like to see the government of Ontario ban bottled water operations altogether and kick Nestle out.”

The U.S. Container Recycling Institute estimates about 30 million plastic water bottles are thrown away, and not put into recycling containers, every day.  It is estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of water bottles are NOT recycled.

Many towns and cities have already implemented bans on bottled water. Bundanoon in New South Wales, Australia, was the first to do so in 2009. The states of Sikkim and Bihar in India, have restricted the use of plastic water bottles in government meetings. In the U.S., San Francisco, California, has phased out bottled water. Concord and Brookline, both in Massachusetts, have banned single-serving plastic water bottles.

In Canada, the following Ontario municipalities have passed bottled-water bans on municipal properties: Ajax, Burlington, Cornwall, London, Newmarket, Niagara Falls, Oakville, Oshawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Windsor, Waterloo, and Toronto.  In British Columbia, Nelson, Victoria and Vancouver have also implemented this ban. Other jurisdictions, such as Montreal, are considering it.

What about our own municipal and county?  What is their position on this issue?

As of late last year, Lanark County no longer purchases bottled water for County Council meetings and tries to limit any purchase of bottled water.  The County also encourages the use of refillable water bottles and water coolers with recyclable cups.  While not exactly a ban, it does send a clear message that bottled water is environmentally harmful and unnecessary.

As for Mississippi Mills, our municipality also does not ban bottled water at its facilities.  Our staff do provide encouragement to use refillable containers, and they provide alternatives to single-use plastic bottles in our facilities.

Perhaps if we write to our councillors at both levels of government, explaining how serious the plastic pollution problem is, they will join the list of other environmentally active jurisdictions in completely banning bottled water.

Clearly, if we care about our planet and our legacy to our children and grandchildren, we have to do everything we can to reduce the amount of plastic we buy and discard.  In my next column, I will present some ideas.  But here’s a start:

If you currently buy bottled water or ask the cashier for plastic bags, PLEASE STOP NOW.  If you shop at an establishment that provides free bags, tell the managers to make their policies more restrictive. Write to your municipal and county councillors and share your concerns about plastic pollution. Contact Council of Canadians at https://canadians.org/ and support their efforts to reduce the production and consumption of bottled water.  Don’t be part of the problem – be part of the solution!