Bottled water drying up in Surrey School District

Trustees agree to gradual ban – where practical and feasible.

Surrey's Board of Education voted Thursday (Sept. 15) to stop providing bottled water at Surrey School District meetings and events

The flow of bottled water in the Surrey School District may soon be just a trickle.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, Surrey’s seven school trustees agreed to discontinue providing bottled water at board meetings, conferences and, where feasible, at other district events.

As reported in The Leader, Trustee Laurie Larsen first floated the idea in June, her argument being that regular tap water in Surrey is clean and safe and bottled water is often unnecessary.

At Thursday’s public board meeting, she reiterated her point, saying providing bottled water at district events and in schools sends the message that Surrey does not consider its freely available drinking water “good enough.”

She said beverage companies are profiting from bottling already clean municipal water and selling it at a 200 to 4,000 per cent mark up.

“Water is not a commodity. It is a right,” an impassioned Larsen said.

She also refuted the argument that not providing bottled water limited the public’s choice, as it’s readily available in almost every corner store and gas station, and she slammed the notion that people will drink more sugary soft drinks if bottled water is not available.

“For goodness sake, lack of access to bottled water is not a cause of childhood obesity,” said Larsen.

A report has been requested on existing contracts the district has with companies that supply bottled water for school vending machines. Like juice and pop sales, revenue from water sales often helps fund things such as school sports teams at many schools. Current contracts with vendors will be respected, assured Larsen.

As well, the status of water fountains in Surrey schools will be checked to ensure things like sufficient water pressure and safe, non-lead pipes are in place.

Educational material promoting the benefits of tap water over bottled will also be made available district-wide and municipal water will be promoted as the preferred alternate to single use water bottles.

Trustee Reni Masi supported bottled water use being discontinued, but said gradual implementation would be key rather than an outright ban.

Trustee Shawn Wilson commended Larsen for presenting a well thought out motion.

“In the past, our board has shown leadership in environmental concerns,” he said, pointing to Surrey’s ban of pesticides on school grounds.

Trustee Terry Allen pointed to the many presentations the board has heard over the years from student groups engaged in various sustainability, recycling and waste management programs and initiatives.

“I think this motion goes a long way to supporting those students,” said Allen.

At least one company was hoping the school district would either reject or defer its decision on the bottled water ban.

John B. Challinor II, director of corporate affairs at Nestle Waters, wrote the district on Thursday in an attempt to sway board members and rebut some of Larsen’s reasoning.

He argued the carbon footprint of bottled water is the smallest of any bottled beverage and that water bottles make up a negligible percentage of the plastic headed to landfills. Challinor also said statistics show Canadians drink both tap water and bottled – one at home and the other away from home.

“Bottled water competes with other bottled beverages. It is not an alternative to tap water,” he wrote.

Challinor’s letter, however, apparently held no water with trustees as they chose to proceed with the ban.

Larsen said moves such as discouraging use of disposable water bottles, while not without controversy, go a long way to bettering the environment and may take time for people to embrace. Recycling, she noted, still isn’t something everybody does, but is increasingly becoming commonplace.

“For a long time, nobody cared. It’s a slow shift,” she said.

Larsen, who is also the head of Canadian Union of Public Employees, local 402, which represents Surrey’s municipal workers, is hoping the City of Surrey will follow suit and implement a ban on bottled water. She presented a declaration to city council Monday asking that city use of bottled water be phased out and that where possible, drinking fountains be installed at new or refurbished buildings, as well as in parks and other public places.

“If we can do it for this generation, just imagine how fantastic it will be for the next generation,” Larsen said.