You might be thinking, “What kind of person who calls herself an environmentalist isn’t against a ban on single-use plastic water bottles?” That’s a fair question. First, let me say that I hate single-use plastic water bottles and bags, but I find myself using both on a few occasions per year.
A city that relies heavily on tourism needs to consider the consequences of a ban
Montreal is a cosmopolitan, world-renowned city that received 9.1 million tourists in 2014 who generated $2.7 billion in revenue for the city (source). These numbers are nothing to ignore. The majority of these people come for leisure — to visit family and friends or go to one or more of the many, many festivals and events Montreal hosts each summer, and I doubt they remember to bring water bottles.
If you haven’t been to Montreal in the summer, you are missing out, it is a fantastic place to visit. But it can also be hot and humid and uncomfortable. Imagine this scenario: you are exploring the streets of Old Montreal in 30C+ weather plus humidity. You decide to walk to Pointe à Callière or Château Ramezay, and are thirsty, so you pop into a dépanneur (convenience store) to buy a bottle of water only to find that you can buy pop or juice or milk, but there’s no water. The dépanneur clerk tells you there is a water fountain in the park around the corner. So your choices are selecting a less healthy alternative to water or going to the water fountain. I guess I have a phobia about park water fountains, but I have seen many thirsty dogs licking them, so I tend to avoid them.
As a resident of Montreal, if you are addicted to bottled water and buy cases of it on a weekly basis, first of all, stop, and second of all, you may just end up doing your shopping off-island or on the West Island or Laval, etc. The point is, a ban won’t stop the bottles from ending up in the Montreal waste stream.
What is a city’s objective in banning water bottles?
If Montreal is banning water bottles because it believes it’s an easy “win” for waste management, it had better re-examine the possible outcomes — backlash from business and thirsty tourists isn’t the kind of reaction that’s good for future business, and tax revenue from businesses and their employees are what help Montreal function. Secondly, it is the second-largest city in Canada and still only has limited organic waste collection. I know Montreal has recently declared that we will all have green waste collection by 2019, but it is still late to the organic waste party. Diverting organic waste will make a significant impact to waste to landfill since 47% of all residential waste is food scraps.
Banning products might work in smaller towns and cities which don’t get a lot of tourist traffic but for other cities where it is an income source, you have to think about the consequences of the actions. Plus, why is only one single-use beverage container being targeted, when it is a general problem? Banning water bottles will steer people in the direction of less healthy alternatives, which in the era of increasing obesity, may not be the best way to tackle the problem.
While I agree that there is a waste production problem, I believe an alternative solution to a ban would be more appropriate: An industry-led deposit-return system on ALL single-use beverage containers could help solve the problem. In Ontario, there is a deposit-return system on wine, liquor and beer bottles and it is very effective — according to the LCBO’s sustainability report more than 93% of all wine and liquour containers are returned annually, which, in 2013 led to diverting over 112,000 tonnes of glass, metal and plastic from landfill. In both Quebec and Ontario, there is a very efficient deposit-return system for beer bottles which are reused an average of 15 times before they are recycled.
While deposit-return systems aren’t popular with beverage companies, it sure beats a ban on bottled water altogether. It is time that we consumers and industry started taking responsibility for the products we use and the waste we produce. Cities are an important part of this process because they absorb all the waste produced along the way. They have a right to say, “We don’t want to be responsible for your garbage anymore,” and can decide to ban it, but, as the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”