Wading into the bottle water debate

- April 21, 2009


Would you support a ban on sales of bottled water at Dalhousie University?
Following a similar ban by the University of Winnipeg, Dalnews posed this question to Dalhousie students and faculty on Wednesday, March 25.

The reaction was surprising: an overwhelming number of responses poured in, making this one of the best-read discussions in recent memory. As a Dalhousie professor involved in the study of drinking water quality and treatment, I’m thoroughly intrigued by the debate, and want to provide some insights to some of the questions being raised by Dalnews readers.

One of the key highlights for me was the overall interest in this online discussion. This particular item resulted in 109 responses in less than week. In comparison, concerns associated with NSPRIG (73 responses), the ECMA awards (18 responses) and budget deficits (four responses) garnered less active discussions. Clearly, the Dalhousie community is passionate about its drinking water and how they can access it, which is exciting for researchers that want to have impact within their areas of scholarship.

Support for the idea of a bottled water ban was given by about 55 per cent of the respondents. Many of those who supported the ban reasoned that tap water was equal, if not superior to bottled water.

Among those contrary minded to a ban, it was suggested that they could consider supporting a ban if Dalhousie would upgrade the availability and ensure the cleanliness of the fountains on campus, which students felt were poorly maintained and difficult to find. Surprisingly, the right to have the freedom to choose emerged as a major issue for non-supporters.

On a cost basis, Aquafina, the brand of bottled water available in campus vending machines is produced by Pepsi and sold for $1.75 for a 591-mL bottle. At the Needs store near Studley campus, the same bottle retails for $1.49 plus tax. Halifax drinking water sells for a mere $0.413 cubic metre. In other words, that same 591-mL bottle would cost less than three one-hundredths of a penny! The 10-cent deposit placed on the bottled water is more than 400 times the cost of Halifax drinking water.

The environmental burden of these bottles should not be underestimated; elementary school student will tell you that the first environmental “R” is Reduce. Ignoring the petroleum chemicals used to make the bottle, the energy to retreat municipal tap water for many bottled waters, and the distribution costs of bottled water; the ecological footprint of sending large recycling trucks through Halifax to collect less than 80 per cent of the container bottles that will be used and then apply energy to sort, clean and reuse these bottles is far from inconsequential. Halifax Water in comparison uses gravity (a fairly cheap source of energy) to send its drinking water from Hammonds Plains to the south end of Halifax.

In terms of drinking water quality, Halifax is blessed with a protected water source on Pockwock watershed that receives very little, if any, impact from local anthropogenic activities. As a consequence, Pockwock has a very low level of microbiological activity and non-detectable concentrations of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other organic compounds that are often a concern for other communities. Nevertheless, water from Pockwock Lake undergoes a rigorous treatment process before it is distributed to its consumers. Suffice to say, our drinking water is excellent. Furthermore, Halifax Water is a world-class utility that is committed to the advancement of water research at Dalhousie and abroad to ensure that Haligonians continue to receive high quality drinking water.

Taking a drink from a fountain? Run the water a little before drinking so the water will come out cold.

Students, staff and faculty concerned with taps and fountains should take some simple steps to enjoy this product. Buildings are warm and so are the water pipes in these buildings, so open the tap for a minute or so before taking your glass of water. For those that want to avoid the taste of chlorine, simply let your water stand for a few minutes and this taste will dissipate.

As a water consumer, I’m grateful to have a high value, inexpensive drinking water in our community. Many places around the world (including some parts of Canada) do not enjoy this luxury, thus this so-called “freedom” to choose is completely non-existent those communities. A bottled water ban symbolizes the local leadership of Halifax Water and embodies an environmentally responsible spirit of “acting locally and thinking globally” that should inspire the Dalhousie community.

Dalhousie professor Graham Gagnon is the NSERC/HRWC Industrial Research Chair and Canadian Research Chair in Water Quality and Treatment.


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