A look inside one of the biggest water bottling plants in Canada

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

  • Newer production lines at the Nestle Water Bottling Plant in Aberfoyle can produce 1,200 bottles a minute, or 172,800 bottles

    Newer production lines at the Nestle Water Bottling Plant in Aberfoyle can produce 1,200 bottles a minute, or 172,800 bottles a

Written by Josh Gilbert

Two-story machines flicker and drone in an incessant din inside the Nestle Waters Canada plant in Aberfoyle, Ontario.

Throughout the 600,000 square-foot facility tens of thousands of pieces of plastic are formed, expanded, shaped into bottles and transported on miles of air-powered conveyor belts, to be filled with water drawn from the Guelph-Amabel aquifer.

Residents of Puslinch, Aberfoyle and Guelph were greeted with this view during an open house tour last weekend of the plant owned by Canada’s largest bottled water distributor.

Tour guides and spokespersons took every opportunity to emphasize Nestle’s achievements in conservation and recycling – a move intended to counter criticisms by local and national environmental groups.

A fact-sheet was handed to people at the font gate which devotes the majority of the documents space for issues related to their self described “long-term commitment to environmental responsibility.”

Michel McArthur, the plant’s supply chain director, spoke to the crowd about the operation’s sustainability and efficiency.

McArthur said Nestle had taken steps to improve the operation’s sustainability and efficiency, reducing energy consumption at the plant by 22 per cent and water consumption by 25 per cent compared to the previous year.

Tour guides at the plant sported shirts reading “This shirt is made out of water bottles,” a reference to new packaging that reduced the amount of plastic in their bottles.

The tour also exhibited the different stages of production, from the creation of a hard plastic pre-form, composed of hundreds of small plastic beads, to the final stages of filling, capping, wrapping and storing millions of bottles.

The plant’s seven production lines produce at an astounding rate. Newer lines can spit out 1,200 bottles a minute, or 172,800 bottles a day during round-the-clock production.

In 2008, Ontario's  Ministry of The Environment granted Nestle Waters’ a two-year permit to draw water from the Guelph-Amabel Aquifer at its Aberfoyle plant. The grant will be up for renewal in the spring of 2010.

In return for extraction rights, Nestle pays a one-time $3,000 application fee to the Ministry.

Starting in January 2009, Nestle was required to pay the province $3.71 per million litres of water extracted, or about 14 dollars if it takes its maximum daily allotment of 3.6 million litres.

Wellington Water Watchers, an environmental group opposed to Nestlé’s commercialization of local water sources,  estimated that if Nestlé bought that same amount through Guelph’s municipal water system, it would pay about $2,700 a day.

Local musician James Gordon, co-founder of the Water Watchers, said hopes enough public awareness has been raised about the Nestle water bottling operation for the province to consider denying the next permit application.

 “The Guelph-Amabel aquifer has never been adequately assessed," Gordon pointed out. "Nobody knows the sustainability of the water source in the long term.”

In an attempt to cut down on bottled water consumption in the region, Wellington Water Watchers started the Message In a Bottle program, which aims to distribute 40,000 stainless steel water bottles to children in the Wellington District School Board this year.

On campus, Guelph Students for Envrionmental Change have their Tap In program, which asks organizations to pledge not to distribute bottled water at their events.

When asked what percentage of water in the aquifer was being taken by Nestle, MacArthur replied that number wasn't known.

“We don’t know that information. It’s a small fraction of what is available there,” he said.

Despite the insistence from Nestlé that they take an insignificant amount of water from the aquifer, water resources in the community have been under strain in recent years. In 2010, Guelph City Council is poised revisit a contentious plan to build a pipeline  from Lake Erie to Guelph, in order to deal with anticipated water shortages as development increases.

Meanwhile, consumer demand for virtually free water has resulted in a windfall for Nestle, which entered the Fortune 500’s top 50 companies this year.

It’s now the 48th largest company in the United States and remains the world’s largest food and beverage company, thanks in part to Guelph's water.

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  1. Posted by: D.L Newton on Oct 8, 2009 @ 12:15pm

    I am truly baffled by peoples lack of concern for the potential environment impact of these non-sustainable practices, all for the purpose of producing a profit for a few entitled individuals. How is it that a larger number of us do not question whether or not it is appropriate to privative vital community resources, I mean what happens when the well runs dry as it inevitably will? Thanks for this article.

  2. Posted by: D.L Newton on Oct 8, 2009 @ 12:20pm

    And just to throw this out there, I still have a remarkably hard time understanding why anyone would be foolish enough to buy bottled water. You could be getting it virtually for free but yet we find it reasonable to pay an absurd amount of money just for the opportunity to litter. I think it is appropriate to applaud initiatives, like message in a bottle, to curb consumer demand in such a manner that can initiate the change that is needed.

  3. Posted by: Wuff on Oct 8, 2009 @ 12:44pm

    @DLNewton - I have to agree. Granted, tap-water in some places isn't fantastic, and I like it cold, but it's not that hard to keep a Brita (or similar) filter jug in the fridge. It shouldn't be that difficult to fill a reusable bottle from that if you need it 'on the go'.

    The explosion of the bottled water industry - and its impact on the local watersheds - is really sad. :/

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