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Guest Editorial: The ethics of (bottled) water

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The RSU decided last fall to make Rye bottled-water free. This means campus eateries and vending machines no longer stock bottles; the spots in the vending machines have been replaced with reusable plastic bottles. Water dispensers have also popped up in the Student Campus Centre.

But a debate still exists over the merits of the RSU’s decision and the ethics of bottling itself. Here are two student perspectives on the campus-wide ban.

FOR: Bottled water denies public equal access to water; ruins the environment and students’ pockets.

By Martin Fox

It surprised me to learn that opposition to the RSU’s Water Bottle Free initiative exists on our campus. The move is ethical, beneficial to nature and it aims to save students money — how could I not be puzzled. Let’s explore the RSU’s decision.

The first problem with bottled water is an ethical one: the waste created from plastic bottles is ecologically unjustifiable. A study by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council shows that of the 125,775.4 tonnes of plastic bottle waste created in Canada in 2002, only 60,949.5 were recycled. That means that 52 per cent of plastic water bottles were not recycled — and they’re just taking up space in a landfill. Polyethylene bottles do not decompose, so our garbage will compound and it’ll be there at the turn of the millennium (keep in mind that sales of bottled water have, unthinkably, gone up since then). The manufacture of plastic bottles also consumes oil and produces greenhouse gases. Why would we as conscientious and progressive Ryerson students support this industry?

The second problem with commercialized water is also an ethical one: it is economically exclusive. As we are all aware, there are people around our campus who are not in the same financial position as us. I don’t want to sound like a pinko but here’s a big idea: the necessities of life must be parcelled out equally to each member of a society. Being the most important of the substances we require for continued living, the commodity of water, in a fair society, must be the same for everyone. It is inherently unjust for there to be classes of person with respect to water drinking, where the Evianers feel superior to the Pure Lifers and the Pure Lifers feel superior to that basest of human being, the tap-water drinker. Well-known environmental activist Vandana Shiva spoke at Ryerson last year, and after applauding the RSU for its efforts she said the following: “Coca-Cola basically takes revenue out of the pockets of students, by selling things that should be a public good,” she said. Just because you have money to blow doesn’t mean you should feel entitled to drink better water than what is publicly available. And what right do companies have to sell what’s naturally available on the earth? I bet nobody would pay three bucks for air brought in from France…

Here’s the real kicker, and I want you to read this carefully— tap water is no worse than bottled water in any way. It’s a fallacy to think that the water costing money is in any way better quality. It’s only through marketing that corporations have convinced the public that bottled water is clearer, purer, etc. than tap water. The myth that bottled water is better than tap reminds me of the myth of fan death in Korea — most people believe it even though there’s no evidence. In a way this makes my second point pretty funny; it’s unethical to allow a correlation between quality of water and income, but that’s not even the case because the water in bottles is the same quality as what comes out of our taps. My dear fellow students, you’re paying for no reason. Water bottles, though containing water that’s no cleaner than tap, alienate the poor, clog landfills, consume resources, and rob us of money … Have I painted a picture yet? They’re just awful, from start to finish, and there’s no reason you should buy another one in your life. All the power to you, RSU.

Martin Fox is a second-year film studies student at Ryerson.

AGAINST: Making water a human right doesn’t solve problem of equal access; bans limit consumer choice.

By Chris Spoke

These past couple of weeks have seen promotional posters popping up on campus touting the RSU, CESAR and the Student Centre as being “Bottled-Water Free.” That is, bottled water will no longer be sold or made available as far as they are concerned.

Making the case for such a move, the posters go on to note that, 1) tap water is superior to bottled-water in terms of quality and price, 2) “public water is accessible to all, regardless of social status, or wealth”, and 3) water is a global right (whatever that means), as well as a human right, and should therefore not be “privatized, bottled, and sold back to the people.” I take issue with all of this.

The first point is easily dismissed as not being nearly sufficient reasoning to limit consumer choice. After all, nobody thinks that it’s a good idea to ban the sale of Tim Horton’s coffee just because you could brew yourself a better double-double at home for a fraction the cost — there are other considerations that come into play, such as convenience, portability, etc.

The second point is irrelevant – public schools are equally accessible to all, yet nobody believes that Upper Canada College poses a threat to their continued existence.

And finally, a few thoughts on the third:

  1. Water is not a human right; it is a resource.

One’s human rights cannot be dependent on another’s positive action (such as the actions required to manage, sanitize, allocate and distribute water). By definition, they must be inherent, such as the rights to life and liberty. To label every desirable objective – access to education, healthcare, or water, for example – as a right is to strip that word of its meaning and value.

  1. Aside from being wrongheaded, declaring water a human right is useless.

Declaring food a human right in Article 25, Section 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not kept more than a billion people from living with hunger or prevented 36 million annual deaths from lack of food, and neither will declaring water a human right solve the problem of scarcity. Taking up the language of (phony) human rights distracts from the real issue of access: The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.8 million annual deaths can be attributed to problems with water supply, sanitation and hygiene. Will a human right to water prevent those deaths? Will blocking the development of markets for water prevent those deaths? Obviously, no and no. Just the opposite, anti-capitalist right-to-water campaigns such as the one undertaken by our sophomoric representatives will exacerbate the problem.

  1. The development of well-functioning markets for water would save lives.

Econ 101: shortages are caused by prices being kept artificially low – e.g., “free”. A shortage of water can, of course, quite easily and rapidly lead to dehydration and death. Markets are the best mechanism suited to allocating scarce resources efficiently. Water is a scarce resource. The only manner in which we can eliminate shortages is by having its price reflect market forces of supply and demand. (The bleeding heart liberal play here would be to petition for state subsidies targeted at those who could not afford the market price, not the blocking of market pricing itself.)

On September 26th, Ryerson will host its fifth annual “Ethics at Ryerson Speaker Series”, which will feature a debate on market pricing and conservation of water. Let us hope that the discussion rises above the empty pathos employed by the RSU and CESAR to play out their activist agenda, and toward a more pragmatic and effective approach to ensuring access to clean water for all.à

Chris Spoke is a fourth-year economics and business student currently studying at the University of Ottawa- but he studied at Ryerson this summer and will be again next summer.


This is the first in a series of a bi-weekly editorials written by students. If you have a stance on an issue that relates to life on campus or the university experience, and, even better, can find someone who can counter your argument, email us at We reserve the right to edit submissions for length, spelling and grammar.


  1. Your argumentation starts to crumble logically when discussing the third point.
    You cite “life and liberty” as inherent rights- if life is a right and water is necessary for life than by the transitive property water becomes a right. Our right to life is contingent on certain physiological necessities, and access to these necessities becomes a right once they are needed to sustain the more fundamental right to life.
    The terms “human right” and “resource” are not mutually exclusive, water is in fact both.
    If you’re going to question what a “right” is, I can challenge you to explain where our rights to life and liberty derive from. It is generally agreed in modern civilisation that one definition of “right” is anything which is necessary for survival. How can we protect free speech as a right and not water, when three days without the latter can end your life. And why are you bringing health care and and education into this debate, these things are not absolutely necessary for survival like water is.
    The act of declaring or pronouncing water to be a human right does nothing in itself, and it’s illogical to expect a verbal or textual statement to have an instant effect. But formally recognizing water as a human right is a reasonable foundation for other legislation/policy. Without being given special status, there is less governments can do to modify the distribution of water.
    “Markets are the best mechanism suited to allocating scarce resources efficiently.” What the fuck, really? There are two centuries of literature disputing this. Capitalism encourages corporate greed because it places profit above what is best for the population- as an example read up on the negative externalities of Coca Cola’s manufacturing activities in India. Water must be excluded from the free market system because without government intervention it will be apportioned to those with money, and I can’t think of anything less just than dying of thirst because you’re poor. This applies on an international level as well- the rich nations will receive all the water they need and the poor nations will receive none at all, because they cannot afford water the same way affluent nations can. Demand for water is universal, and we cannot allow only those with money to have it. I’m a liberal, though I’m pretty sure my heart isn’t hemorrhaging internally- and I do oppose setting a price for water using a market system because there are billionaires who can afford to buy a lake’s worth of water and people on the verge of dying of thirst who would consider themselves lucky to receive a cupful. Governments can equalize this, and only governments should be entrusted with the allocation of water because they represent and work for the people; corporations represent and work for their owners.
    It’s pretty monstrous to characterize concern for dying humans as “empty pathos”.
    You also make no mention of ecological impact. You’re right that tap water being equal to bottled water doesn’t mean consumer choice should be restricted- but bottled water producing millions of tonnes of plastic waste I think IS enough. The minor convenience of being able to dispose of the bottle whenever handy cannot be reasonably said to outweigh the damage done to the environment. Just as the government has a duty to ensure every person has enough water, the government has a duty to ensure that consumers are not destroying the environment when it’s reasonable to enact such a restriction. There is only one small pro to bottled water, and many big cons.

  2. Both authors do an excellent job of stating their positions. However, there is a middle ground argument that is mostly lost in these campus debates.

    Ours is one of at least six companies I’m aware of that manufacture “bring your own bottle” style water vending stations that do not add to plastic waste and DO remove chlorine, total dissolved solids and a host of things that are unfortunately not routinely removed via municipal water treatment systems. These stations can be set up as either pay-per-dispense or as free-vending stations. So the campus community does have a choice.

    Bring your own bottle stations are a very good compromise between the ban the bottle anti-capitalists and the “my rights above your planet” stance of the free marketeers.

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