Water Bottles

Photo: http://www.sigg.ch/
Commercially bottled water is a big eco no-no, but the big question is, what reusable bottle should you use?

This article first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Green Living magazine.

For years, avid cyclist Paul Ditommaso has filled a reusable plastic water bottle under the kitchen tap and taken it with him on his two-hour-long biking hikes. "Reusable plastic bottles are great. The only problem is, you have to replace them about once a year when they get worn, scratched and it becomes harder to wash them well, but otherwise, what else are you going to use?" says the 46-year-old Oakville, Ont., resident who is a big advocate of a healthy, eco-conscious lifestyle.

Good question
Choosing a reusable water
bottle is definitely a far smarter choice for the environment (and your pocketbook) than store-bought bottled water. Nonetheless, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada survey, three in 10 Canadian households opted for pre-packaged water, which is seriously bad news for our landfills, since an estimated 88 percent of water bottles -- typically made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) -- aren't being recycled.

Landfill overflow
"Think about an outdoor musical or cultural event you've been to," says Aaron Freeman, policy director of Environmental Defence. "If you're there at the end, think about what that place looks like and what's strewn all across the grass: thousands of these bottles." Plastic isn't fantastic.

The time NOT to recycle
It's enough to make everyone with an eco conscience decide to reuse PET water bottles, refilling them with tap water over and over again.

Not a good idea. PET bottles are designed for one-time use only because they are difficult to clean properly. If you think that hot water will remove nasty bacteria, consider that plastic exposed to heat tends to leach chemicals.

In fact, leaching chemicals -- even without heat -- is a concern with plastic water bottles.

Polluted water
In 2006, Michael Krachler and Canadian-born William Shotyk of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry in Heidelberg, Germany, measured the amount of antimony -- which has been linked to nausea, dizziness and depression -- in 15 brands of bottled water from Canada and 48 from across Europe. They found up to 30 times more antimony in PET-bottled water than in water bottled in glass. They also found that the concentration of the chemical in PET bottles almost doubled after six months.

The two scientists believe this indicates the longer the water sits in PET bottles, the more the chemical leaches in, and although the antimony levels in PET bottles six months into the Heidelberg study remained well below the limits of Health Canada's safety standards, the findings were significant enough for the scientists to say further research is warranted.

In Canada, there are currently no government best-before-date requirements, even though the Canadian Bottled Water Association uses two years as the recommended shelf life for bottled water.

Beware BPA
But what about the reusable plastic bottles you can buy? Sounds good, but many of them can leach a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical compound is the main ingredient in polycarbonate plastic, the translucent hard plastic used in refillable beverage containers - including baby bottles and sippy cups. (BPA is also found in the protective linings in food cans and some plastic cutlery, as well as some dental composites and sealants.)

Hormone disruption
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, BPA has been shown to have hormone-like effects on the reproductive system and, in high doses, on the uterus and prostate glands of experimental animals (scientists believe the effects of BPA seen in animals is equivalent to what occurs in humans). What's more, this year the CDC released a study that found 93 percent of the people tested had been exposed to BPA. In other words, almost everyone has bisphenol A in their bodies.

"In order for us to see that kind of result, it means the exposure has to be happening on a chronic basis," says Environmental Defence's Freeman. "The leading and most recent science, points to bisphenol A being an endocrine disruptor, which is a substance that can interfere with the normal functioning of the hormone system. It's also associated with a wide range of health impacts, including breast cancer, attention deficit disorder, obesity and organ malfunctions. There's a very long list."

Stricter guidelines
Beginning in 2006, the Chemicals Management Plan, a project of Environment
Canada and Health Canada, began studying 200 substances, including BPA, that could pose a risk to human health. A decision on whether to regulate BPA is expected by May. The Ontario government has said it may not wait for the federal government to act on BPA. In November of last year, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced he would be appointing an expert panel to make recommendations on regulating BPA and other chemicals. But for now, there is no legislation in Canada regulating the use of BPA.

Retailers set the example
Meanwhile, at the end of last year, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada's largest
outdoor-goods retailer, pulled most food and beverage containers made of polycarbonate plastic from its shelves, including the well-known Nalgene water bottles, citing concern over possible health risks.

Bottles for babies
Most plastic baby bottles and many sippy cups are made from BPA-leaching polycarbonate. Whenever possible, parents should use glass, metal or BPA-free baby bottles and cups.

Environmental Defence has launched a campaign focused on protecting the most vulnerable: babies. Environmental Defence recently tested three major brands of plastic baby bottles sold in Canada. All of them leached detectable amounts of bisphenol A. The highest levels were found after the bottles were heated. For more details, including information packages for parents and daycares, go to toxicnation.ca.

Toxic Nation
Daycares pose a special problem. To comply with health and safety regulations, they can't use glass, and metal isn't an option because it can't be microwaved. What's more, daycares wash bottles in dishwashers using very high heat.

"That actually makes it worse, because every time you run a bottle through a dishwasher, the level of BPA leaching goes up," says Freeman. To make matters even worse, after repeated washings, the bottles tend to fade and acquire hairline scratches. "By the time the bottles get to that state," Freeman says, "the leaching level is off the chart."

The numbers game
Plastic bottles often have a number or letters inside the triangle recycling symbol imprinted on the bottom of the bottle .If a bottle has the letters PC inside the triangle, it's definitely a BPA-containing polycarbonate. If there is no number at all, avoid.

If it has the number seven on it, "it's often BPA -- but not always," says Aaron Freeman, policy director of Environmental Defence. He adds that the category is a catch-all for everything from BPA to bio-plastics.

"This is why we need government intervention. To a certain degree, consumers can make healthy choices to avoid chemicals like BPA, but to a very large extent, they can't. You don't know if it's in the lining of a tin can or in a reusable water bottle, so we need the
government to step in. Consumers can't do it on their own."

As far as plastic goes, choose bottles made of number two plastic, which is a bit opaque and more pliable.

Metal water bottles
Generally, the best water bottles are stainless steel:

  • Klean Kanteen: designed by U.S. environmentalists in lightweight stainless steel. Available from the Klean Kanteen website or from the online stores in Wakefield, Quebec, Life Without Plastic or Amazon.
  • SIGG: Swiss-made, lightweight, in numerous colours and designs. Available from retailers such as Curbside Cycle and Northern Spirit .
  • Choosing a reusable water bottle

    A handy guide to the numbers game.
    What to look for on the bottom of plastic bottles:

  • HDP (high-density polyethylene): safer, as far as plastic goes.
  • PP (polypropylene): safer, as far as plastic goes.
  • PETE (polyethylene terephthalate): amber alert; possible antimony trioxide.
  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride): red alert; may contain BPA, as well as phthalates, another endocrine disruptor.
  • Other (usually polycarbonate, but can be a range, including bioplastics): red alert; likely contains BPA.