Tap vs bottled: water facts and fiction

You could be forgiven for thinking there is plenty of water to go around. This winter, most of Canada and the US saw record levels of snowfall, and England and Wales are having their wettest winter since rain-tracking began almost 250 years ago, in 1766. In 2013, worldwide floods seemed to top the list of annual disasters with inland flooding that affected parts of Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada.

Though our planet consists of up to 71 per cent water, a staggering 97.4 per cent is ocean and lake saltwater. Only around 2.6 per cent of global water is potable and accessible. Of that small portion, much is trapped in glacial ice, permafrost and underground. This makes it exceptionally important that we protect our fresh water and its sources.

From Source to Tap and Back

Toronto’s tap water comes, most directly, from Lake Ontario. The lake is fed by neighbouring Lake Erie, as well as Toronto’s three main watersheds, some hidden streams, direct rainfall, and filtered and cleaned output from our sewerage system. Our Rouge, Don and Humber river watersheds cover a total area of 1,600 square kilometres and include many creeks and tributaries, some of which originate in the Oak Ridges Moraine.

To purify and ‘recycle’ water from all these sources, Toronto’s four water treatment plants work around the clock. Our east Toronto area is serviced by the architectural marvel that is the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant, as well as the FJ Horgan Water Treatment Plant, and the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, which covers the opposite end of water purification, so to speak.

The treatment process removes three categories of impurities: physical (non-soluble objects, like small bits of trees or floating garbage), chemical (from man-made or natural substances), and biological (algae, bacteria or small living organisms).

A small percentage of older homes still have lead pipes, which raise lead levels in tap water. The city continues to replace its sections of lead connections and urges home owners to have their pipes replaced.

The water in Toronto’s filtration plants is sampled and tested by city staff every four to six hours, every single day. It meets or exceeds the Ministry of the Environment’s Ontario Drinking Water Standards and is one of North America’s leading water treatment systems.

Bottling Water

The manufacturing, transportation and disposal of plastic water bottles creates pollution and other issues.

Made from crude oil and natural gas, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles’ beneficial characteristics of softness and durability mean they do not break down for hundreds of years when in landfill.

Every year, 100 million water bottles from Toronto end up in landfills according to Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, and many can be seen bobbing around in our waterways. Many pieces of plastic bottle litter become part of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patches, where plastic and other non-biodegradable debris collects in huge, floating islands due to a convergence of ocean currents.

Other pollution is caused by the transportation of bottles, starting with shipping the ingredients to manufacturing, to filling, and finally distribution to the point of sale.

As for water safety, unlike municipal water, the province does not regulate or enforce the quality of bottled water. It is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and on average, a water bottling plant is tested only every two to three years. In 2010, only six per cent of bottled water factories were tested (16 of 282 factories) and since 2000, 27 out of 49 bottled water products were subject to recalls by the agency.

An international study that included Canadian sources showed 40 per cent of sampled bottles had bacterial or fungal contamination (see the Polaris Institute’s Inside the Bottle). Chemical contamination from phthalates – an endocrine disrupter that affects a human’s hormone balance – has also been found.

Drawing thousands of gallons of freshwater from aquifers, streams and lakes daily can reduce availability to farmers and nearby communities. In 2011, Nestlé Waters Canada applied for an unprecedented 10-year permit extension to take 3.6 million litres of water daily at their Aberfoyle site near Guelph (also the City of Guelph’s municipal drinking water source), for a mere $3.71 for every one million litres of water. Nestlé’s permit allows it to draw 1.13 million litres per day.

Local community organization Wellington Water Watchers and environmental lawyers from Ecojustice and the Council of Canadians fought for a limit to daily water-takings during drought. In September 2013, Nestlé finally withdrew from this legal battle, according to Wellington Water Watchers.

Removing and exporting large quantities of water from a local watershed, such as bottled water from Fiji or any other far-flung source, also breaks local cycles of renewal, further reducing levels of groundwater, streams, and lakes and their ability to replenish.

Individual preferences … and what you are not told

Some of the most commonly cited reasons for bottled over tap water are the perceived safety of bottled water, the convenience of buying it when needed, and an undesirable smell or taste of tap water. Taste is a very personal preference, yet thinking of bottled water as automatically safer than – or even different from – tap water is a misconception.

Many brands of bottled water are, in fact, tap water from various municipalities, marketed and sold as “pure” and “natural spring water.” The brands Dasani by Coca-Cola, and Aquafina by PepsiCo are drawn from municipal water systems in Brampton and Mississauga, respectively. According to independent market research company Canadean, at least two out of every five bottles of water sold globally are no more than purified municipal water, and not “source” waters originating directly from a spring.

For all that, consumers pay 1,000 to 2,000 times more for bottled than good old tap water!

Still prefer bottled water? Whatever your choice, be an informed consumer. March 17 to 23 is Water Week. Check TVO’s schedule for documentaries that include our local Water Brothers, filmmakers Alex and Tyler Miflin and their Bottlegate. For facts presented in a fun way, watch The Story of Bottled Water.


Martina Rowley is an environmental communicator  ~  martina@beachbusinesshub.ca  ~  647-208-1810

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Lately our tap water tasts and smells a little bit like perfume, you can also smell it in the air outside. What is the city doing to the water? It normally lasts about a week.

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