Nestlé Waters Bugs Out of Canada, as Ontario Looks to Change the Rules

It was the news that water protectors and environmentalists have long waited to hear, the announcement that Nestlé is getting out of the bottled water business, or at least the “Pure Life” brand of bottled water that is taken from so many wells and aquifers in our area. The news comes on the heels of the Government of Ontario’s announcement that they’re seeking input on enhancing water quality programs that will affect the bottling industry.

In a press release posted Friday, Nestlé announced that they are selling their Pure Life bottled water brand to Ice River Springs, a water company based out of Shelburne, ON. The sale includes the bottling plant just south of Guelph in Aberfoyle, and a well in Erin that Nestlé bought in 2016 much to the surprise and controversy to people in Centre Wellington.

“In late 2019, we began the exploration of a potential sale of our Nestlé Pure Life business in Canada, as we had determined that we are best positioned to focus on our iconic international brands of San Pellegrino, Perrier and Acqua Panna,” said Jeff Hamilton, President and CEO of Nestlé Canada Inc. in a statement. “We are pleased that Ice River Springs, a local Canadian company with a focus on sustainability, has agreed to purchase this business.”

“This is a significant step in our strategic sustainability journey and with the addition of this iconic brand, their skilled and dedicated people across the country and the resources of this business, we will continue our commitment to sustainable bottled water, the circular economy and to hydrating Canadians,” added Sandy Gott, executive vice-president and co-owner of Ice River Springs.

On their website, Ice River says they’re the only bottler in North America that self-manufactures bottles made from 100 per cent recycled PET out of an abundance of concern about sustainability. While the rate, and relatively cheap cost, of water taking has been the primary concern about Nestlé’s operations, many advocates have weighed the concern of plastic waste as equally negative to the water taking itself.

“Nestlé is on the wall [of shame] for being the biggest plastic polluter in Canada, according to a brand audit by environmental NGOs in 2019,” said Vito Buonsante, plastic program manager for Environmental Defense earlier this year. “It also refuses to support collection systems that stop plastic from entering the environment, including a deposit return program for plastic bottles in Ontario.”

The announcement from Nestlé is presented as 100 per cent positive for all parties involved, but some of their biggest critics don’t buy it.

“Nestlé’s production in Wellington County fell by 40%, partly in response to falling market demand. Nestlé’s official comment that this was a ‘business decision based on growth ambitions’ does not contradict the fact that their market share declined,” said Wellington Water Watchers in a social media post. “We know it is your persistent opposition to Nestlé’s bottled water and the #boycott of their product that contributed to this result.”

Another group says that it doesn’t matter who’s apply for the permit, they will still oppose it. “Save Our Water remains committed to safeguarding the Middlebrook well and protecting our community’s groundwater from any and all large scale commercial water bottling interests,” read a post on the Save Our Water website. “We will continue to oppose new permits to take water for the purpose of commercial water bottling.”

The sale of the Pure Life brand, and the controversy that comes with it, arrives at an interesting time as the Government of Ontario announced last month that they’re seeking public input on their new water quality management proposal. The proposal is meant to ensure the long-term protection of water resources, including a proviso that will require companies to get the support of the municipalities hosting their bottling facilities.

“We can’t take our water for granted – it is a vital resource for our health and well-being, and to the way of life we all enjoy,” said Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks Jeff Yurek in a statement. “Based on initial input from our stakeholders and Indigenous communities, we have put forward proposed enhancements to our water taking rules that will create a more flexible and robust program.”

Other measures includes assessing and managing multiple water takings in one area of the province to make sure sustainability is practiced, that water taking data is more readily available to the public, and the establishment of priorities for water use to guide all water taking decisions in the province. Ontarians have until August 2 to submit a comment.

There’s been a moratorium on new water taking permits since 2016, the same year that Nestlé’s permit in Aberfoyle came up for renewal by the Ontario government. That moratorium was extended late last year until October 1, 2020.

At a press conference at Queen’s Park earlier this year, Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner demanded that the Government of Ontario needed to take action to stop water taking for profit. “I believe the Province needs to manage our public drinking water, as a public trust, in the public interest,” said Schreiner. “It would be irresponsible to allow additional commercial water extraction in [Centre Wellington] given all of the demands on our water supply and the growing impact from climate change.”

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