The world’s largest bottled water company is sucking millions of litres of water from two Canadian towns on expired permits, a government official told VICE News, in a move enraging environmentalists who say Nestlé is getting a pass to profit from a public resource and contributing to plastic pollution.
Switzerland-based Nestlé, for its part, says it donates tens of thousands of dollars to community groups in Canadian towns where it operates wells and bottling facilities and that its permits expired because of complicated changes to water management rules imposed by the Ontario government earlier this year.
The dispute over water rights between local residents and the company underlines debates over who should control natural resources and how heavily governments should regulate and tax the industry. The explosion in global consumer demand for bottled water has led to a massive rise in plastic pollution which critics link to companies like Nestlé.
Environmentalists in the Town of Erin, 80 km northwest of Toronto, and Aberfoyle, south of Guelph, Ontario,want authorities to prohibit Nestlé from taking any more water until it has the proper permits. But government officials have resisted those calls.
Nestlé is currently extracting about five million litres per day from the sites where its permits have expired, according to Emma Lui, water campaigner for the Council of Canadians advocacy group. Nestlé says it is allowed to extract nearly five million litres per day from the sites, but has actually been taking less than 60 percent of its allotment.
“It’s a classic conflict of the needs of the few outweighing the needs of the many”
“Although Nestlé Aberfoyle and Erin permits have expired, they are deemed to remain in force and operations can continue until the ministry makes a decision on the renewal application,” Ontario government spokesperson Gary Wheeler told VICE News.
“Nestlé is in the process of amending their Permit to Take Water applications” in order to meet “new technical requirements” from the government, Wheeler added.
Nestlé said it’s not violating any rules and its ability to legally harvest water remains “fully intact.”
“Within the last year, the Government of Ontario made sweeping changes to water policy and regulations for bottlers,” Nestlé’s director of corporate affairs Jennifer Kerr told VICE News. “Both government and industry are working hard to see these changes through.”
It’s unclear when the permitting situation will be resolved. The Ontario government has imposed a moratorium on new permits for extracting water for bottling until January 2019. Nestlé said it is not considering “further actions” until that ban is lifted.
Mike Nagy, a business consultant and activist with Wellington Water Watchers, wants that moratorium extended indefinitely with current permits phased out over the next decade.
“It’s a classic conflict of the needs of the few outweighing the needs of the many,” Nagy told VICE News of bottled water extraction operations.
He supports groundwater being used for value-added industries, like local agriculture or craft beer brewing, but opposes companies extracting millions of litres to package the water into plastic bottles and ship it out of the community.
Towns in the Wellington area need the groundwater to cope with growing populations and in response to droughts which hit the region last year, Nagy said.
“Ontario’s charge is among the highest provincial water charges for water bottling in Canada.”
Between 2011 and 2015 water levels in the aquifers where Nestlé operates fell by 1.5 meters while the company increased their pumping by 33 percent, said Lui from the Council of Canadians.
“Nestlé was pumping from aquifer faster than it could be recharged,” Lui told VICE News. Activists have also raised concerns that the fees companies pay to access the water don’t even cover the cost of monitoring the resource. Nestlé’s data, based on constant monitoring of the aquifer, does not back up those claims. The company disputes assertions from Lui that ground water is being pumped faster than it can be recharged and provided data showing water levels have been largely stable.
Nestlé says its operations are sustainable and it shares data on water levels and other environmental issues with local authorities.
Earlier this year, Ontario increased the cost it charges Nestlé and other companies to extract groundwater to $503.71 for every million litres, up from less than $4, Wheeler, the government official said.
“This new fee is expected to recover a significant portion of the province’s costs of managing groundwater taken by water bottlers, including supporting scientific research, policies, outreach and compliance,” said Wheeler. “Ontario’s charge is among the highest provincial water charges for water bottling in Canada.”
By 2050 ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish
The public is still, however, effectively subsidizing Nestle’s water business as the cost the company pays does not cover the full expense of monitoring and managing the resource, according to environmentalists. Nestle disputes that view, saying it’s responsible for paying the full cost water monitoring and sharing its data with regulators.
More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago, according to the tracking firm Euromonitor International.
The vast majority of these bottles end up in oceans or landfills, studies say. More than five million tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans every year; by 2050 oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research from U.K.-based the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Nestlé says it is taking concerns about plastic waste from its business seriously and is working with local governments and businesses on recycling education programs.
“Our ambition is that not a single bottle ever ends up in a landfill and therefore we have designed a 100% recyclable bottle,” Nestlé spokesperson said. “But we recognize that this isn’t happening.”
This article was updated on November 1 with additional responses from Nestlé.