The water that comes out of most city taps in Canada is pretty clean. Yet many people prefer to spend money on bottled water, believing that it is somehow safer. Now we’re learning that the stuff in plastic water bottles may be more harmful than anything in our tap water.
'Bisphenol A' is just one chemical that’s been in the news recently – and in many plastic bottles. This compound mimics estrogens (human female hormones) and has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers and childhood developmental problems. It is found in clear, hard polycarbonate plastic commonly used in household and commercial water coolers and some reusable bottles, and it’s just one potentially harmful substance associated with plastic containers.
The presence of chemicals isn’t the only reason we should try to wean ourselves from the bottle, though. For one thing, bottled water is expensive, costing more than a comparable amount of gasoline.
Unlike most nations on Earth, Canada has vast quantities of fresh water. Have we so polluted our water that we feel compelled to pay a lot for it? And from beginning to end (and for plastics, that end is a long time away), plastic bottles contribute to environmental problems.
To start, the manufacturing process is a factor in global warming and depletion of energy resources. It takes close to 17 million barrels of oil to produce the 30 billion water bottles that U.S. citizens go through every year. Or, as the National Geographic website illustrates it: "Imagine a water bottle filled a quarter of the way up with oil. That’s about how much oil was needed to produce the bottle."
It also takes more water to produce a bottle than the bottle itself will hold. Canadians consume more than two billion litres of bottled water a year, and globally, we consume about 50 billion US gallons a year. Unfortunately, most of those bottles – more than 85 per cent, in fact – get tossed into the trash rather than the recycling bin.
The pollution from plastics affects our air, land, and water. Many plastic bottles end up in landfills or get incinerated, and burning plastic releases toxic chemicals into the air. Plastic that stays on land or that is buried can take hundreds of years to break down, and even then, it doesn’t completely biodegrade.
One of the most disturbing things is what happens to plastic that ends up in the oceans – which is about 10 per cent of all plastic produced, according to Greenpeace. About 550 miles off the coast of California, a massive, expanding island of plastic debris 100 feet deep and bigger than the province of Quebec, swirls in what is known as the North Pacific Gyre. In a recent column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website, writer Heather Mallick described it as "a hideous chyme [semi-fluid mass] stretching and pulsing in the sea like an underwater gob of spiky phlegm."
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade; rather, it photodegrades, which means that, under sunlight, it just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The tiniest bits of plastic, called nurdles, enter the food chain when they are eaten by marine animals and birds. Nurdles also soak up toxins, adding to the poisons consumed by animals and every creature up the food chain. More than a million birds and marine animals die every year from eating plastic waste or from becoming entangled in plastics.
If the environmental damage caused by plastic bottles or the existence of potentially toxic chemicals in the bottles isn't enough to make you avoid them, how about some reasons that hit closer to home?
First there’s the fact that many bottlers get their water from municipal supplies. Coca Cola filters and bottles water from municipal sources in Calgary, Alberta and Brampton, Ontario for its Dasani brand. Pepsi's Aquafina comes mostly from Vancouver, British Columbia and Mississauga, Ontario. That's right: they're taking your tap water and selling it back to you at a markup that can be as high as 3,000 times the price you pay for it through your taxes.
There's also a danger that governments may use the growing reliance on bottled water as an excuse to avoid their responsibility to ensure we have access to safe drinking water. The federal government must address any existing concerns about drinking-water quality with enforceable standards designed to protect human health.
If you're worried about chlorine in your drinking water, put it in a pitcher and let it stand overnight to allow the chlorine to evaporate – or consider buying a carbon activated filter for your tap. To carry water with you, fill up your stainless steel or glass bottle from the tap, and enjoy.
Water is a precious resource that belongs to all of us. Let’s not take it for granted. And let’s not put it in plastic.
Reprinted from “Science Matters” a column by Dr. David Suzuki, PhD and Dr. Faisal Moola.
Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and chair of the David Suzuki Foundation which he founded. He is Companion to the Order of Canada and a recipient of UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for science, the United Nations Environment Program medal, and Global 500. Dr. Suzuki is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and holds 22 honorary degrees from universities around the world. He is familiar to television audiences as host of the long-running CBC television program 'The Nature of Things', and to radio audiences as the original host of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, as well as the acclaimed series It's a Matter of Survival, and From Naked Ape to Superspecies. His written work includes more than 43 books.
Dr. Faisal Moola is the Director of Science at the David Suzuki Foundation. He is a practicing scientist and has published widely in scientific journals on many topics in the areas of wildlife biology, conservation, and environmental policy. He has conducted research in some of Canada’s most significant wilderness areas, such as the great northern Boreal Forest, the old-growth rainforests of British Columbia, and the Acadian woodlands of Atlantic Canada. He has also been a university lecturer.
I'd heard of the floating mass of plastic in the Pacific before, and understand it's not the only one of its kind, either. The BBC has reported on the risks posed by invisible, broken down bits of plastic in oceans for a few years now.