On Campus

Of all the things to ban… bottled water?

Pettigrew: It’s only water and plastic. Let’s all take a breath.

Photo courtesy of Conor Lawless on Flickr

Another university, this time Toronto, has announced a ban on bottled water, continuing what must be the most overblown crusade since, well, the actual Crusades.

It’s hard to think of another product where the campaign against it is so out of proportion to the potential harm. Unlike smoking cigarettes — which was banned from professors’ offices when I was an undergraduate — drinking water is not unhealthy in itself. Just the reverse: it’s a vital nutrient. Moreover, unlike smoking, consuming water indoors doesn’t put anyone’s health in jeopardy.

Advocates for the water bans say that bottled water is wasteful because one can get water from taps, which is, of course, true. But if eliminating waste is the issue, why stop — or indeed start — with bottled water? Why not ban cars from campus in favour of bikes? Why not ban paper cups? Why not ban paper textbooks and force students to save paper by reading only electronic versions?

Indeed, if waste is the issue, why focus on a product so eminently recyclable? Are there universities in Canada where plastic bottles aren’t recyclable? And if the problem is that people aren’t being diligent about which bin they’re putting their empties in, the solution should be to convince people of the merits of careful recycling rather than banning a recyclable product.

But even if I conceded that bottled water were a bad thing in itself, and even if I agreed that people were entirely incorrigible when it comes to distinguishing types of garbage, it seems unlikely that a bottled-water ban will help. While it’s nice to imagine that in the absence of bottled water, all the water drinkers will have refillable bottles with them at all times, I think it’s just as likely that those who had been drinking bottled water will bring bottled water from home, or switch to other drinks like cola and iced tea which, by the way, also come in bottles, and are less healthy than water to boot.

I’m not arguing against bringing your own refillable container if that’s your thing. Save money, reduce waste, and feel superior. And start an advertising campaign to encourage others to do likewise if you want. Point out that bottled water may be a thousand times more expensive than tap water, that municipal water supplies may actually be safer than bottled water because they are monitored more closely. Point out that a lot of bottled water is essentially just tap water anyway.

But we have crossed a line when when what seems like a good idea to some becomes a necessity for all. If you don’t like bottled water, don’t buy it. And try to convince others not to buy it.

But don’t insist that I can’t buy it either.

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