The plastification of the world

Eric Schiller

Tim Hortons sells their own brand of water at $1.80.
Photo Eric Schiller

Do you know that globally, for every minute one million plastic water bottles are sold?

Do you know that most of these bottles are not recycled, but instead end up in the environment?

Do you know that vast ocean islands of plastic waste are accumulating in the oceans? The largest is estimated to be 1.6 million km2 in size. According to the World Economic Forum, at present rates, by 2050, there will be more plastics (by weight) in the ocean than fish.

Why is all this happening? Most of these discarded bottles come from rapidly developing countries. This is indeed strange because many of these countries have good quality, regulated water provided by their own municipal water supply systems. And we should add, this municipal water is provided at a much lower cost than that of bottled water.

For corporations that sell bottled water, this is a huge money-making business. Global water sales are soaring. According to research done by The Business Research Company, total global sales were $170 billion in 2017 and are expected to rise to $280 billion in 2020. For these companies, the water source is low in cost, and the exploitation of fossil fuel material provides the container.

We are living in a period of history when 80% of the world’s energy is fossil fuel-based (petrol, natural gas, coal). But not only are we burning fossil fuels and discarding the polluting wastes into the air, we are using these same fossil fuel materials to plasticize almost everything, even ourselves when we drink these waters: A report published in April 2018 by McGill University gave the results of tests performed on the bottled waters of the world’s five leading water bottling companies and found plastic particles in most of them.

A walk through a modern supermarket will find many foods wrapped in plastic. A walk through a modern electronics store will find most modern gadgets wrapped in plastic. Children’s toys and many other items are also wrapped in plastic. We are living in an age of plastification of many things. The environment is now clearly suffering—and our children will pay the price for all of this. Add to this an impending climate change, and you have a coming disaster.

There are many ways to combat this. All that is lacking is political will. Big corporations—Coca Cola (Dasani), Pepsi Cola (Aquafina), Nestle, Eska and Naya, the companies whose waters were tested by McGill University—are making billions in profits, so the change that is required will not be easy, and when it finally happens it may too late.

There is one place where we can begin. There is a clear alternative to plastic water bottles. After decades of design and improvements, developed countries have produced a remarkable system of community-based water supply. These systems, if managed properly, supply well regulated, high-quality water at a reasonable price. Here is one step that we can take to begin to tackle the plastic pollution that is invading us. We need to eliminate plastic water bottles, unless they are absolutely needed. They may be required if there are no existing water supply systems, or some breakdown or emergency has occurred. Reducing plastic water bottles will be a first step in what will be a long and difficult journey of change. Many other steps could follow, such as returning to glass and paper containers, of using reusable containers of metal or—even hard reusable plastic containers!

Here in Sandy Hill, and Ottawa in general, we at Ottawa Water Study/Action Group (OWSAG) are working on a project to dramatize this issue. A plan of action will soon be announced. Stay tuned