A rare look inside Nestlé's Aberfoyle water bottling plant
A glimpse at what goes on at the factory that draws so much ire from environmentalists
From the get-go, one thing is clear about visiting the Nestlé Waters Canada bottling plant nestled among the farm fields and woodlots near Aberfoyle, Ont.: Nestlé is a company that believes in rules.
56 million cases per year
Rules were a theme throughout the tour: hard hat, neon safety vest, steel toe footwear were all required equipment as we perused the inner workings of the factory. So was hearing protection, to shield us from the thunderous hum of the machinery responsible for the inhuman task of bottling and packaging 56 million cases of water every year.
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We even had to remove our wedding rings against almost the imperceptibly small chance a finger could be caught in the apparatus.
"It's gotten pretty aggressive. This year is the most aggressive I've ever seen it," said Eman Remthai, Nestlé's Human Resources manager at the Aberfoyle plant.
She said the public backlash comes every five years, when the company renews its provincial permit to draw local ground water. Each cycle, media works as a conduit for that public hostility, channeled in its most turbulent form through social media such as Facebook and Twitter, even local radio stations.
"We had a couple of employees who were pretty distraught because one of the local radio stations said that Nestlé employees should go out and find another job," she said.
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Hottest, driest summer in decade
What has some groups so upset is that Nestlé continued to pump millions of litres of water daily from local aquifers during one of the hottest, driest summers in the last decade.
There was so little rain this summer that Agriculture Canada declared the area to be under "moderate drought." In the nearby city of Guelph, Ont. homeowners faced a fine of $130 for watering their lawn. While crops wilted and lawns yellowed, Nestlé continued to bottle.
However, the company did voluntarily scale back production by 20 per cent in response to an announcement by the Grand River Conservation Authority that this summer's drought conditions were causing abnormally low surface water flows.
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Nestlé says it's sustainable
Nestlé says the critics' water reading comes from a single site and is too small a sample to say anything conclusive about the state of groundwater in the area.
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"For instance, a private well, the levels fluctuate daily when you turn your well on and off, by up to four to seven metres. It's not uncommon," Nestlé's chief hydrologist Andreanne Simard said, noting she lives in Aberfoyle and draws on a local well for tap water at home.
"I think we need to look at the big picture," she said, noting her company has 15 years of data taken from 80 sample points along the Grand River watershed.
"I'm here to make sure we're operating in a sustainable way," she said. "That we're not showing any negative declining trends in the surrounding ecosystem, the neighbouring wells and making sure the groundwater resource is sustainable and there forever."
And why not? Forever is a long time and ground water is a cash cow for Nestlé.
You don't need sophisticated instruments to calculate the spread between what Nestlé charges for its product, which can retail anywhere from $1.00 to $2.50 per bottle of water, and what it pays for the contents: $3.71 for every one million litres.
'Not our job'
"The price of water is set by the government," stated Nestlé Waters executive Catherine O'Brien. "It's not our job to set the price or even input on the price."
The price Nestlé pays, along with its permit, is now part of a wide review by the provincial government, looking at Ontario water rules that are more than three decades old. Rules that Nestlé, being the rule-obsessed corporation it is, is more than happy to follow until they change.
However, even Nestlé Waters thinks there's an opportunity to make meaningful change in a system that doesn't seem to make sense.
"So if your interest really is in having a comprehensive review of who's using water, when and how, it would make most sense to look at it in broader sense than just bottled water."
O'Brien has a point, and what might be surprising is, it's the same point many environmental groups who want to put her out of business are making: Ontario needs clear and fair rules over how we pay for and use public water.