The Inside Agenda Blog

In Defence of Bottled Water

by Daniel Kitts Thursday March 22, 2012

As part of Water Week on TVO, The Agenda aired an interview Monday with The Water Brothers, whose series looking at water issues around the globe is a key part of this week's programming.

After the interview aired, a representative of Nestlé contacted us to disagree with some of what the Water Brothers had to say about bottled water:

Nestlé sells a lot of bottled water and disagrees with the notion that bottled water is somehow bad. So the company rep made several points in response to what the brothers had to say, including:

1. Ontarians primarily drink bottled water as an alternative to another bottled beverage for better health and hydration. Most do not drink bottled water instead of tap water. According to independent market research firm Nielsen Research (www.nielsen.com), 70% of Ontarians drink both. They drink tap water at home and bottled water on the go. Those who drink bottled water at home do so because of water infrastructure breakdown, immune deficiencies or they simply don't like the taste of chlorine in their water. Nielsen Research also confirmed that 95% of the movement by consumers to bottled water came at the expense of soft drinks, sweetened juices, coffee, tea and milk.

2. Non-alcoholic beverage packaging, including bottled water, is the most recycled consumer product good in Ontario and, indeed, around the world. More than 60% of this packaging was recycled in Ontario last year -- and almost 70% of it was recycled across Canada (www.stewardedge.ca).  Plastic beverage containers represent less than 1/5 of 1% of the waste stream -- and bottled water represents 40% of that.

3. According to independent research firm Quantis International (www.quantis-intl.com), bottled water has the lightest carbon footprint of any bottled beverage, whether you are measuring it by water use, energy use or greenhouse gas emissions. The average bottle of water travels about 155 miles (250 kilometers) from source to shelf, compared to 1,490-1,985 miles (2,400-3,200 kilometers) for fresh fruit and vegetables and most consumer packaged goods, according to Washington agricultural consultant Dan Murphy. According to Industry Canada, it takes 1.3 litres of water to make 1 litre of bottled water, compared to 3 litres for a soft drink and 42 litres for a beer.

4. Canada currently has a $21 billion water and sewer infrastructure deficit, resulting in more than 1,500 boil-water advisories across Canada last year. [For more on the issue of boil-water advisories, take a look at The Agenda's feature on the water crisis in many First Nations communities. Plus watch our interview with Ontario Chief Angus Toulouse during Thursday's program.] There are more than 69,000 homes in Toronto with lead contamination issues. The City of Toronto loses 30 times more water through its crumbling infrastructure annually than the entire bottle water industry produces in a year. Some Canadians may take tap water for granted, but not everyone.

Nestlé on the Bigger Picture

The company representative also provided a speech made by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of Nestlé. In it, Brabeck-Letmathe maintains that Nestlé's interest in water is not purely based on its bottom line, and lays out some ideas on how to preserve water around the globe. Those ideas include charging more for the water we use, a topic we'll tackle on Thursday's program. Here are some excerpts:

Some people talk about the profanation of things by commerce, about profanation by commodifying a social good and calculating a price for it. I think the contrary is true and we see it in daily reality: when something is free, people tend to lose respect for it, even if it is something as valuable as water.

The fact is that only co-operative and pragmatic efforts between academia, civil society, governments and private enterprise will result in the most promising ways to find effective, economical and sustainable solutions to preserving our water supply for generations to come.

Why does Nestlé care about water sustainability? Some say it is because of our bottled water business. That’s incorrect. Bottled water is a small part of our business and the entire bottled water industry uses well less than 1% of the world’s available freshwater.

Nestlé is the world’s largest food company. Worldwide, 70% of all water withdrawn for human use goes to farms to grow food. We are more concerned about the ability of the farmers we contract with around the world to continue to grow food for us and, ultimately, you.

[...]

Is water a priceless resource?

The response is yes, it still is in most places. And whenever there is no adequate price attached to water, when it is free or distributed at heavily distorted prices, we see its value massively reduced, ultimately at a high cost for society and the environment.

Subsidized municipal tap water for the prosperous threatens the access to basic water needs for the poorest. To quote Nancy Birdsall, who heads the Washington-based Center for Global Development, “Water needs a price. If you don’t have a price, the rich will get it free, the poor will pay a lot.”

There is one exception to this pricing: the water necessary for basic needs – which are about 25 to 50 litres per day per person – for those who cannot afford to pay for it. This water must be free of any charge.

Subsidized or free water for farmers threatens long-term food security. In Spain, for instance, according to one calculation, farmers pay 2 to 3% of the actual cost. As a consequence, sprinklers are on during the day and, as a result, 70% of the irrigated water evaporates before it even hits the ground. Water tables have been falling.

Thoughts?

So now you've had a chance to hear the Water Brothers on bottled water, and read some perspectives from a major company in the bottled water industry. Which argument do you find more compelling? Share your thoughts below.

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