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The Battle With the Bottle

author: Tom Cruickshank  

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 On one hand, bottled water sure is handy, but on the other, there are questions about it's environmental sustainability. Lately, it has also become a motherhood issue: Should water be just another commodity up for sale, or should it remain a public resource that is above commercial interests? Herein lies the heart of the debate over the bottled water industry across Ontario and here in Watershed country

DISCO. THE FORD PINTO. BOTTLED WATER. Of all these brand new things that we couldn’t get enough of in the 1970s, only one is still with us today. Disco is but a faint beat in the distance and Ford built its last Pinto in 1980. But bottled water is still with us. And how.

From humble beginnings in 1977, when Perrier gambled that the European fashion for water from a bottle could make the jump across the Atlantic, sales have soared and never looked back. By the early ’80s, bottled water was a mainstay in almost every household and today, it continues to be one of the most successful marketing achievements of all time. Only a generation ago, store-bought water was unheard of, laughable, an oxymoron, a passing fad at best. After all, scoffed the non-believers, bottled water costs as much as the equivalent amount of gasoline. So why would a smart consumer pay for something that is virtually free from the tap?

Little could the doubters have known just how wrong they were. According to figures from Euromonitor International, a provider of worldwide consumer research, Canadians bought 2.4 billion litres of bottled water in 2015, up three percent from a year earlier. That’s about 73 litres for each one of us. In fact, among all the non-alcoholic drinks that we buy, bottled water is second only to coffee as the fastest growing beverage market in North America, handily outpacing rivals such as milk, energy drinks, juice and even that old mainstay among thirst-quenchers: pop. In fact, sugary soft drinks are in decline as water pours in to fill the void. Major international beverage companies, like Pepsi, Nestlé and Coca-Cola, have a stake in it. And while many consumers assume that all bottled water is sourced from natural springs, some of it is merely municipal tap water, filtered and bottled to look special.

In Canada, the industry contributes $262 million to the economy and employs about 3,000 people, according to figures from the Canadian Bottled Water Association. The Ministry of the Environment has issued permits to take groundwater to 15 different companies in Ontario, some for multiple wells across the province. There are a handful of bottling plants right here in Watershed country. Four decades later, bottled water is still nothing short of a consumer phenomenon. Can’t say that about the Ford Pinto, that’s for sure.

AN EMERGING INDUSTRY

“We were in the right place at the right time,” recalls Nancy Corcoran who, with her husband, John, tiptoed into the bottled water trade in the 1980s and soon found themselves at the helm of a burgeoning business complete with its own bottling facility near Grafton that employed 200 people. It started humbly enough when guests at John’s parents’ newly opened country inn – Ste. Anne’s – regularly commented on the quality of their morning coffee. Sensing it was their well water that made the difference, John indulged an entrepreneurial whim and with some investors, investigated the idea of bottling and selling water from Ste. Anne’s on a commercial basis. Turns out the inn, which sprawls over 400 acres, perches atop an aquifer that yields some remarkably fresh spring water. Nancy recalls that reps from Perrier later paid a visit and declared that Ste. Anne’s was among the best water they’d ever encountered. Moreover, hydrological studies suggested that the aquifer is positively huge, producing more water than they could ever need.

The Corcorans’ CJC Bottling company was on to something. The partners built a bottling facility. They hired staff. They built a small business that showed signs of growing into something big. At first, the focus was delivery to homes and offices, but they soon found their niche bottling house brands for retailers such as Shoppers Drug Mart and Timothy’s coffee houses. Soon they were shipping to clients in the U.S. Encouraged, the Corcorans bought a second large acreage near Vernonville in the mid- ’90s, the idea being to tap its potential as another water source. Test wells yielded spectacular results: flows up to 800 gallons a minute. When you consider that an average household well that pumps a mere three or four gallons a minute is deemed adequate… that’s a LOT of water.

But then came the 2008 moratorium, a provincial government edict that cast doubts about the future of the industry.

CONVENIENCE OVER CONSCIENCE

Despite its enormous success, it hasn’t been clear sailing for bottled water. Almost from the day it was introduced on this side of the Atlantic, the industry has been plagued by criticism on several fronts, especially from folks who think green. High on their list of complaints are the bottles themselves, which aren’t necessarily recycled once the contents are gone. By now, you’ve already heard the statistics: in 2016, the Toronto Sun reported that “As few as 50 percent of the water bottles Torontonians consume everyday are actually being recycled.” Put another way, this means that as many as 65 million empty bottles go straight to the landfill each year. Moreover, it takes resources and energy to manufacture them, let alone transport them to market: in fact, 90 percent of the cost of producing a bottle of water is in packaging, shipping and marketing. And surely you don’t need to be reminded about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that Saskatchewan-sized island of bottles and other plastic debris floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Even so, the heart of the issue has as much to do with the water itself as it does with plastic. Specifically, it is argued that the sheer volume that is bottled poses a threat to the long-term viability of the aquifers from which it is taken. Indeed, Nature’s groundwater is notoriously slow to replenish itself and in the meantime, critics are convinced that the industry is siphoning off water faster than is sustainable. After all, how many times can you go to the trough before the source starts to run dry?

It’s no secret that, across the globe, aquifers are in trouble. In 2015, the United Nations released a report noting that demand on groundwater is skyrocketing at an unsustainable rate, considering such factors as climate change and rampant population growth. In just 15 years, it claims, the world could suffer a 40 percent shortfall in drinking water. Already many of the world’s largest aquifers are being depleted with little or no recharge. When 95 percent of our fresh, available water comes from aquifers deep below the Earth’s surface, isn’t it obvious that we mess with it at our peril?

Critics point their fingers squarely at the mining industry, gravel pits and power generation as among the world’s most notorious consumers of water. Globally, the thirstiest industry of all is agriculture, which uses a staggering two-thirds of all the water extracted from the ground each year, especially in arid regions such as central California that would be too dry for farming without irrigation. Here in Ontario, water is so abundant that aquifer depletion is barely on the radar, so maybe you can’t blame the bottled water industry for scratching its head, wondering what all the fuss is about. Indeed, the amount of water they extract from ground sources is, pardon the pun, a mere drop in the bucket. The Canadian Bottled Water Association claims that in Ontario, the entire industry bottles only as much water as is used in a year by ten golf courses. No one should single out the bottled water business as solely culpable for the depletion of aquifers, but the question is this: Should we add to the crisis, especially when the infrastructure is already in place to deliver perfectly good water from the faucet?

Public opinion seems to have taken stock of the environmental argument. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of opposition to the continued commercial extraction of groundwater: even CJC saw its share of criticism. But last year, it was in Wellington County that the issue really boiled over. There, the large multi-national Nestlé, which already had a license to extract up to 3.6 million litres of water a day from an aquifer near Guelph, purchased a well that would expand its bottling operations significantly, despite protests from a local municipality that also bid on the same well. It became a hot political issue: should water be allowed to become just another commodity for sale, like oil? Or should it be a public resource reserved for public use, free from the pressures of industry?

The fracas between corporate interests and environmentalists prompted the province to issue a two-year moratorium on new licenses to extract spring water on a commercial basis. As of October 2016, existing permits are restricted to five years instead of ten, and bottling companies are now required to reduce production during a drought, correcting a beef that particularly galled protestors during last summer’s unprecedented dry spell.

Meanwhile, the environment ministry will pick up its efforts to map Ontario’s aquifers and study the impact of population growth and climate change on groundwater levels. New regulations will surface sooner or later. Among them will be higher royalties paid by bottlers for the amount of water they extract. Before the moratorium, Nestlé paid a mere $17.44 a day to take 4.7 million litres from its Guelph-area wells.

Most of all, no new permits will be issued for the time being. And so for now, there is a truce.

GLOBAL DEMAND VERSUS LOCAL REALITY

The moratorium isn’t the first of its kind in Ontario. The Corcorans remember two others, one in the mid-1990s and a second in the early 2000s – both founded on the same argument as the current debate. Today’s moratorium will not expire until after the next provincial election, but the issue isn’t going to fade from the front pages again anytime soon as environmental watchdogs gain ground in a campaign to wean us off the bottle. Already, several municipalities and universities – Ryerson, U of T, Trent, the City of Toronto, the University of Ottawa – have rules forbidding the sale and distribution of bottled water within their institutions, while Montreal is entertaining an outright ban across the city. For its part, the David Suzuki Foundation puts it more simply: “If Canadians want to do something about the environment, they can start by drinking tap water.”

Meanwhile, sales are still on the way up and the industry has launched a campaign of its own, excusing itself as pretty small potatoes in the debate over water extraction. Quoting Environment Canada, “The Canadian bottled water industry uses just 0.02 percent of permitted water in Canada.” It argues that the issue is not the amount of water, but the proper disposal and recycling of water bottles. It seems this is one battle that won’t be over soon.

As for the Corcorans, the moratorium was the last straw, and confirmed in their minds that they made the right decision when they sold the CJC water business to a company called Ice River in 2008. “Several factors were working against us,” recalls Nancy, noting that the industry at the time was going through a consolidation that favoured big players over small. With cases of water selling as loss leaders at supermarkets, profit margins were squeezed and likewise, the fluctuating Canadian dollar made the U.S. market far from a sure thing. And finally, faced with the prospect of shelling out for upgrades that would streamline production at the Grafton plant, the Corcorans decided the time was right to sell. Today, their sights are set on something completely different: turning their secluded Vernonville property – the same acreage they had bought as a water reserve – into a luxury camping resort. “It’s called ‘glamping’, a play on ‘glamour’ and ‘camping.’” Their new venture is the latest trend in tourist getaways and about as far from the bottled water industry as you can get.

As trends go, time will tell if glamping will endure, unlike disco or the Ford Pinto. But more importantly, time will also determine the fate of bottled water. Will it still be with us in another 40 years? It’s hard to say, because right now, it’s anyone’s guess.

WHY BOTTLED WATER IS STILL WITH US

What’s most remarkable about the success of bottled water is that it is a product that is completely unnecessary. The vast majority of us in Ontario have access to cold, clean, perfectly healthy water from the household faucet. And yet, sales continue to soar, even as campaigns rise against it. It may have started as a fad, but here’s why bottled water is still on store shelves:

• It’s convenient.
Sometimes, the tap just isn’t handy. Sometimes we forget to bring a refillable container with us. It’s that simple.

• It really is a healthy choice.
Faced with a decision between sugar-laden pop and caffeine-infused energy drinks, a bottle of water is one of the better thirstquenchers that can be purchased on impulse at a convenience store.

• It has snob appeal.
This can be the only explanation for the popularity of certain premium brands that come from exotic locales or claim special mineral properties. They sell for upwards of $3 a litre. Keep in mind that tap water clocks in at a one-tenth of a cent per litre.

• It eases our fears about the quality of our tap water.

In August, StatsCan reported that 20 percent of Canadian households rely on bottled water, even though most of them don’t need to. All it takes for us to question the purity of municipal water is the occasional news item about a boil-water advisory, questions over fluoridation or a report about lead levels in municipal pipes. Alas, the Walkerton tragedy in 2000 did wonders for bottled water sales. The irony is that bottled water is not exempt from recalls because of contamination.

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