With straw ban, ‘Toronto is becoming the opposite of a California city’

Members of the Canadian public health sector are speaking out about the city of Toronto’s ban on single-use plastic water bottles.

Toronto Public Health vice-chair Jane Bell says the policy is “hugely problematic” because it lacks any data to show that single-use plastic bottles is the most harmful thing people do with water.

“A water bottle may even contribute to the environment in a way that’s worse than what you can buy in an online store, because it’s not used.”

Bell says these concerns have been ignored until now, and, as a consequence, “people are unaware that all of this is taking place.”

Bell has served as vice-chair of the Public Health Agency of Canada since January 2009, and has been a board member of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area Public Health since May 2005.

She was recently appointed to the chair of the Canadian Organization for Drinking Water and Sanitation (COVID-19) by the Pan-Canadian Public Health Association (PCPHA) in Ottawa on 15 December.

When she first heard of the ban, Bell was concerned the city was enacting a blanket ban on water bottles without proper data on their harmfulness, while ignoring new technologies such as reusable containers and carbonated beverages.

According to Bell, unless water bottles are used to prepare cocktails, they are not disposed of with the inefficiencies found in general trash. In total, about 65 plastic bottles go into every barrel used for car rentals.

Another way for bottles to be used differently is to treat them and reuse them in microwaves or thermal envelopes.

“The whole idea of a plastic water bottle, in my opinion, is a hoax,” Bell says. “They’re a waste item. It’s the evidence that I’ve seen that’s pointing the finger at plastic bottles as having the worst impact on the environment. In my opinion, the city has taken this policy and turned it around and twisted it.”

But the city may use the data it has to interpret the ban. A spokesperson for Toronto’s public health unit says, “There is no data that has shown there is a greater risk of environmental contamination [from single-use plastic water bottles] than water containers that are bought in stores, such as at an online store.”

Bell’s concern is echoed by Brenda Gabriel, CEO of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She has launched an investigation into the ban and submitted a request for data on the impact it could have on those impacted.

Gabriel, along with Bell, is concerned that the information, intended to provide a framework for discussion around other new restrictions on plastic bottles, has been disregarded. She says single-use plastic bottles are among the “less-clever plastics” for which city-enforced bans may be harmful.

“So [Banksia] looks like a clever environmental move and I think it’s great the Toronto public health unit does have good environmental work and works to educate the public,” she says. “But, in this case, one shouldn’t read into it as, ‘We are banning not only plastic water bottles, but plastic water bottles everywhere,’ because the data does not support that at all.”

Gabriel’s concerns are common among other sectors within the public health community. This month, a public health working group submitted an early warning notice to the PCPHA, stating the ban is among “priority changes” that have put them in a “difficult position”.

Toronto Public Health did not reply to a request for comment before the deadline.

This article was written by Torfaik Grech from BBC News at Cities, in association with Environmental California, Think 500, Think Bof, Spencer Armstrong, Canada Journal and Rob Crosby.

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