Let Them Drink Coke

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[twitter]Last weekend the Calgary Folk Music Festival made a bold step in a growing tide against bottled water: they banned sale of it on site.

The momentum behind the ban the bottled water movement is an environmental one. But there is another side to this coin, the health one. In a time when we are using our cars as dining rooms and consuming more fast food than ever before, restaurants are being encouraged to offer healthier options. Salads, yogurt, fruit and water are now alongside burgers, fries and cola.

So here’s the rub: while the sale of bottled water was banned at the CFMF, the sale of bottled colas wasnt. If a fair goer was visiting a concession booth ordering a falafel or wrap or salad, the only options for refreshment were of the water mixed with sugar variety.

It should be noted that TD sponsored water jockeys to wander the fairgrounds with backpacks filled with water that was trucked in so they could top up festival goers who brought bottles from home. Oh, and if you didn’t bring a bottle, you could buy one on site (to bring home and stuff in your cupboard with the dozen or so other water bottles you may already have.)

While I agree we should be encouraged to drink water that is free instead of buying the bottles, I’m not so certain that banning the sale of water in public places is the answer.

In 2009, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities asked its membership to ban the sale of bottled water at civic facilities. That would mean a ban at park concessions, rec centres and civic offices.

The argument that is consistently raised is that we are using plastics to bottle something that is readily available and is free. Well, if you look at the photo of the water fountain above, you’ll note that the free water is not always readily available. Try taking a run around Vancouver’s gorgeous waterfront in the spring or fall and you’ll quickly find the faucets are turned off.

Can you imagine being a tourist out for a long day’s walking and not be able to grab a bottle of water to take with you on your walk?

To see the other side of the debate, and try to have a greater understanding of the issue the CFMF and FCM were trying to fight, I recently watched the documentary Tapped.

The film makes 3 main arguments, none of them convinced me that the sale of bottled water should be banned.

1. They accused the companies, specifically Nestle, for accessing community groundwater and syphoning it off without proper compensation to the communities. Groundwater isn’t properly regulated, so the loopholes are there for the companies to swim through. If the abuses are so gross, then the civic governments need to have better resource management regulations.

2. They accused the manufacture of the plastics used for the bottles as a major health risk for people living near the plants, specifically in Corpus Christi, Texas. If the plants were only making bottles for water, then perhaps the argument would hold water. Considering these same bottles are used for everything from iced tea to colas to juice, the argument carries less weight. Banning the sale of bottled water won’t close these plants down, there’s plenty of demand for plastic containers.

3. They pointed at the mass of waste created by the tossing of bottles and plastics. That is a fault of State governments and poor education of the population. Only 11 states have legislated recycling deposits and a further only 6 of those apply it to bottled water. In the states that have 5c deposits, recycling rates are 70%. In Michigan, where deposits are 10c, recycling rates are 97%. There’s a simple solution to the problem, place a levy to pay for the self-funding recycling programs and get the plastic back in the system.

That problem isn’t as rampant in Canada. We have comprehensive recycling programs in many of our cities. I always joke that it’s easy to spot a Canadian in the US – we’re the one walking the entire day with an empty bottle in our hand looking for a blue bin to recycle it.

Bottled water is a healthy, convenient, portable option. If you ban the sale of bottled water, the portable, convenient refreshment will be cola. The recycling programs still won’t be in effect, and so the trash will still exist. The plastics will be needed for these bottles, so the manufacturing plants will still exist.

Banning bottled water doesn’t solve the problem. Education does.

People say bottled water tastes better for the same reason Coors Light tastes good: it’s cold. It’s crisp. It’s fresh. Water fountains or tap water aren’t as crisp or cold as the bottle that you pull from the fridge. If you fill a Nalgene with tap water and toss it in the fridge overnight, you’ll notice the difference in taste immediately. Same thing with the Brita fridge filters: the water tastes better because it’s colder.

My behaviour has changed with shopping bags. I now have a handful of reusable ones in my trunk and pantry that I take grocery shopping. I’ve removed that plastic from my consumer cycle and perhaps one day the reusable bottle will be a habit as well.

I applaud the CFMF for not just taking a step, but providing an alternative. That said, if they were truly concerned about the environment, then bulk serving of all refreshments would have been done on site. I mean, if I can use my Nalgene for water, I can use it for beer, coke or ice tea too, right? Bulk fountain stations would have entirely removed single-serving bottled plastics from the system.

The CFMF continued the eco-crusade beyond the bottle by requiring compostble cutlery and reusable plates from the vendors.

But you can see the slippery slope we start sliding down: soon enough we’ll all be hiring sherpas to carry our reusable eating gear just for a trip to the park.

Education needs to be the first step, banning sale is the last step – not the other way round. For now the bottled water movement is saying “Let them drink Coke” and that solves nothing.

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