A friend of mine recently directed me to thinkwater.ca to highlight the evils of bottled water. Watching the video I couldn’t help but get frustrated. It is a classic example of progressives misunderstanding the market, and in turn misdiagnosing the problem and engaging in counterproductive strategies.
Check out the thinkwater video below:
The ad correctly argues that tap water is both more stringently regulated (and thus safer) than bottled water, as well as less expensive (pennies a litre vs. $3 a litre). As the kind man in the ad says: “You are actually paying a lot more money for something that is not as good for you.”
The ad is premised on the assumption that people are misinformed and, if they only knew the truth, they’d change their behaviour. In reality the piece completely misunderstands why people buy bottled water: while there are admittedly some people who mistakenly believe bottled water is safer than tap water, the vast majority of bottled water bought in stores is bought because it is convenient.
Consequently this and other campaigns that target the safety and cost of bottled water completely miss the point and are unlikely to impact peoples behaviour.
To better understand, let’s dissect the piece’s two arguments.
Is tap water cheaper? Absolutely, but it doesn’t come in a container you can take anywhere and then dispose of when you are done. For many people keeping track of a container is – quite frankly – a drag. They don’t want to have to keep remembering where it is and carting it around with them everywhere they go. Bottled water is simply easy. Consequently, they aren’t paying $1.50 for the water – they are paying $1.50 for the convenience of being able to drink a healthy beverage and then dispose of the container.
This accounts for why Vancouver and Toronto’s campaigns to hand out drinking containers – in effort to encourage people to drink city water – were misguided and had little to no impact. People don’t want containers – their lives are already cluttered with stuff. The perceived benefit of a owning $1 container is a lot lower then the mental cost of constantly tracking it.
Is tap water safer? Absolutely. But absolute safety is irrelevant. The real question is, is bottled water safe enough to drink? The answer to this is obviously yes (do you know anyone whose ever gotten sick drinking bottled water?). The marginal benefit of water that is imperceptibly cleaner is basically zero.
Indeed, many people who are drinking bottled water are choosing it over a soda, a slushy, or some other cocktail that truly is filled with obnoxious chemicals and far too much sugar. The health risks of a population drinking bottled water is likely a lot lower than those of a population drinking coke. In this context, raising the specter of health risks around bottled water feels both disingenuous and counter productive. More importantly, your listeners can agree with you, while simultaneously not having it impact their decision making process.
Am I defending bottled water? Definitely not. Discarded empty water bottles make up an astonishing amount of waste. However, a population that is drinking water – as opposed to soda and pop – is a good thing. More importantly, people seem to place significant value on the convenience of bottled water – devising a solution that meets this need, rather than fights it, is probably paramount.
Consequently there are a few things that could be done.
First, water bottles could be standardized – like soda cans and some beer bottles – so that they are more easily recycled. While you are at it, why not slap deposit on those bottles to encourage people to return then to be recycled.
Second, create and enforce the law that restaurants and other establishments serve tap water. Often people feel they have no choice but to buy water. Making it clear that you can order tap water would at least give people some choice.
Third, why not have the city contract out the right to bottle and sell water? This would reduce green house gas emissions (water would be bottled locally as opposed to being shipped in from who knows where) as well as place tap water on a par with brands like Evian and Dasani. The city could also set a far lower price which would reduce the cost to consumers. (Although if tap water is actually “better” you should be able to charge a premium). Better still, since most cities control their recycling programs it would be easier to ensure that the bottles were washed, recycled and used again, significantly reducing the amount of waste.
These three options feel far more likely to be effective than the current strategy – persuading people bottled water is unsafe (it clearly is safe enough to drink) and too expensive (people are obviously willing to pay for the convenience). I would be interested to hear if anyone else has additional ideas…