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Profiting from Free Water

There are many factors to consider when purchasing that seemingly innocuous water packaged in plastic - not the least of which is how we, as consumers, are being manipulated by big business - yet again. As consumers increasingly swear off the calories in sugary drinks, the bottled water industry, dominated by four large multinational corporations: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Danone, are offsetting the loss in sales of calorie loaded soft drinks and replacing it with a new and very profitable revenue stream - bottled water. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the sale of bottled water is the fastest-growing beverage sector in the world. Globally, an estimated $100 billion US are spent every year on bottled water.

Price Gouging
These corporations establish water extraction plants in communities worldwide taking millions of liters a day from regional aquifers or municipal water utilities. Then it's sold back to the public at extraordinary profits. The U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. In short, the bottled water you have sitting on your desk or in your backpack probably comes from a public water source and these large corporations pay virtually nothing for it.

We could re-fill our own water containers over 50 times with tap water for less than one tenth of a cent. Yet when we purchase a branded bottle of water, liter for liter, we pay more for it than we do for gasoline.

Plastic Bottles
Bottled water produces excessive waste and is a major contributor to global warming. It takes about 18 litres of water to produce 1 kg of plastic for water bottles. Plastic bottles also require massive amounts of fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases when manufactured and transported to fill sites and then to retail locations. They also release highly toxic chemicals and contaminates into the air when they are manufactured and again when they are burned or buried.

And while it's true single-serving bottles are in demand for recycling - they are reused for making fibre - the truth is too few plastic bottles are recycled. Recycling rates for plastic bottles has been in steady decline since 1995, despite the explosion in plastic-bottle use. Plastic water bottles are becoming the fastest-growing form of municipal solid waste in the U.S. and Canada.

Not only has the industry promoted the shift from glass to plastic containers, and failed to live up to the promises about using more recycled materials in their containers, they actively oppose legislation aimed at improving recycling rates for plastic bottles.

Even more disturbing is the concern and confusion about chemicals that leach from certain plastics when the bottles heat up. The longer the plastic bottle sits on the shelf the more chemicals it leaks into the water prompting Health Canada to recommend that bottled water have a shelf-life of one year.

The Water
The International Bottled Water Association says that bottled water is superior to tap water. The Big-4 bottled water companies imply their 'proprietary' treatment processes are the justification for the higher cost of their products. However, the industry's treatment processes do not guarantee that bottled water is safer than tap water; in fact, a number of studies have demonstrated that bottled water is often less safe than tap water. Consider that one treatment process uses bromate, which is a carcinogen.When Coca-Cola launched its Dasani product in the UK in March 2004, it had to withdraw nearly half a million bottles due to bromate contamination.

Lax Regulations
In the U.S., bottled water companies are not required by law to disclose the source and geographical location of their water takings on their labels. In Canada they are, but only if taken from underground water. Where groundwater regulations do exist, they differ, often dramatically from state-to-state and from province-to-province. As a result of the lax regulatory environment, bottled water labels are often very misleading.

Scientific studies have yet to indicate that bottled water is healthier for you than tap water. Municipal water, however, is more stringently tested. In Canada , local water supplies are inspected every day, whereas bottled-water plants are inspected at three-year intervals.

Beyond Bottled Water - Water Privatization
So what's really fueling the bottled water culture? Marketing techniques undoubtedly evoke feelings of a safer and cleaner alternative to tap water. But why are the bottled water corporations wanting to change the way people think about tap water? By undermining confidence in public water experts speculate that privatization of municipal water supplies is the long term goal.

Privatization is a generic term used to convey many forms of restructuring water service. The most common type of water privatization is also the most controversial. Governments enter into a legally-enforceable agreement with a foreign multinational corporation. The foreign multinational is then responsible for water service provision. Unbelievably, the corporation determines how water is provided, to whom, its quality, and its price.

Couldn't happened in North America? More than half of the American water utilities are already privately owned. Privatization is slowly getting off the ground in Ontario, where private companies serve 500,000 people, approximately 4.5 per cent of the provincial population. There is also some scattered private participation in Alberta and British Columbia, and privatization is being considered by two of the larger Maritime cities. Seems fresh water is the new oil.

Power Of One
Nobody is asking anyone to stop drinking water. But there is a better way than polluting the environment and your body with chemicals just because you want a drink of H2O.

The movement against bottled water has gained considerable momentum with American celebrity chefs including Alice Waters and Mario Batali banning the bottle at their restaurants. In Canada , delegates to the United Church of Canada's general council voted to discourage the purchase of bottled water within its churches. The motion called on church members to advocate against the "privatization of water" and to support healthy local supplies of water.

Stop Purchasing Bottled Water
As consumers we can make a direct impact on our environment, our personal health and our right to drink readily available, affordable clean water. If you don't like the taste of tap water either boil it or let it sit out for several hours before refrigerating it. Then pour the water into a tempered container that doesn't leach chemicals. The cost to your wallet is practically nothing. The cost to the environment and your health - priceless.