the misguided bottled water debate

The debate over bottled water continues… with those who dislike bottled water continuing to miss the point.

Just over a year ago I wrote this piece on why bottled water haters have it wrong. Today, anti-bottled water activists press on, trying to get municipalities to ban bottled water sales. This quote in the Globe and Mail by Joe Cressy, the Polaris Institute’s drinking-water campaign coordinator again shows the problematic thinking behind the campaign.

“(This) resolution is a resounding victory and the latest indication that bottled water’s 15 minutes are up and the tap is back.”

“In the same way that Coca-Cola doesn’t sell Pepsi in its buildings, we’re very pleased to see the FCM encouraging municipalities not to provide bottled water on city property.”

So three comments on this quote.

First, there are all sorts of other drinks that will continue to be sold on city properties: Coke, Orange Juice, Fruitopia all of which contain a lot more sugar and are generally less healthy for you than… water. Banning water may be seen as a victory, unless it means someone is going to buy something else, something that is less healthy and will increase health costs over the long term.

Second, the line about Coca-Cola not selling pepsi in their building reveals a lot about the flawed logic. Anti-bottle water activists will claim that people should be drinking tap water, not bottled water, because it is just as good. But this usually isn’t why people drink bottled water. People don’t just drink it for the flavour or safety (if they do at all) but because it is convenient. I always drink water from the tap if a restaurant provides me a glass, but what if I want to head out around town? Or am in my car? I’m now essentially being told I should make a less healthy choice – since I can’t buy water, I’ll have to buy pop or juice. Not everyone wants to, or will, carry around a water bottle everywhere they go and fill it up with tap water. Many (if not most) people simply prefer not to. If you try to force them, most will probably end up making a worse choice, like buying a Coke.

Finally, those opposed to bottled water are part of two distinct camps. The first are those who are opposed to someone charging for water under any circumstances. I’ve already noted that people aren’t buying the water, they are buying convenience. The second group of people are those who are concerned about the waste generated by bottled water. I am squarely in this camp – deeply concerned about the environmental impact of these containers. Here, however, we have lots of models that are less radical than an outright ban. Legislating, or simply encouraging, bottled water manufacturers to create a deposit system for their bottles would be a good first start. I suspect that if 100% of water bottles were recycled (as they should be) support for bottled water bans would dry up pretty fast.

Let’s hope a sensible solution for the challenge of bottled water waste emerges. One that doesn’t drive consumers to purchasing the diabetes-inducing sugar drinks that are the real competition.

26 thoughts on “the misguided bottled water debate

  1. Charles Tsai

    It would be good to see studies done on municipalities that ban bottled water to see if you are right.My guess is people who buy bottled water probably wouldn't buy coke anyway. And people who buy coke wouldn't buy bottled water.

  2. david_a_eaves

    Charles, we agree on a lot of things but this probably isn't one of them. If I'm thirsty and in a hurry I'll buy something to drink. If water isn't available, I'll buy something else, pop, juice, whatever, but I'll buy something.

  3. David B.

    I agree that this will simply drive people to buy less healthy choices. If I'm thirsty and wandering around downtown (for example) I'll get a bottle of water. If it's not available, I'll buy a coke. Also in a plastic bottle it must be pointed out.But there are also ridiculous extremes, such as my neighbour who buys bottled water for his dogs to drink at home. Claims his well water isn't good enough (it is – tastes just fine). But if he forgets to top up the water dish, they just drink out of the toilet – go figure.Personally the deposit idea is the one I'd go with if anyone (that is any of our various levels of politicians) were to actually care to ask me, which they don't.

  4. Charles Tsai

    I'm a health nut and yet I never buy bottled water. I feel like it's a waste of money. What's going on in my head? What explains my irrational behavior?Concluding that people who normally buy bottled water would then buy soda seems logical but it's just as logical (in my opinion) to think they wouldn't. So let's put in a few bans and study the consequences. That's the only way to know.

  5. saskboy

    If we don't distinguish between liquid consumables then it's okay to ban bottled drinks in some venues where there should be public fountains.

  6. Ryan

    Missed a big one, David. Bottled water is a blight on society b/c it takes something that is local, healthy, and so cheap it's nearly free, and instead transports it around the planet (sometimes multiple times), packages it in plastic, undermines confidence in local water supplies, and sells it at enormous markup.It's a useless product. It's the pet rock of the beverage world. It is bottled marketing, packaged in water.It might, in fact, be cheaper to put a drinking fountain on every corner, and a re-usable mug in every hand. Wish I had time and resources to quantify that. In the meantime, check this out:

  7. david_a_eaves

    No one is saying that every person who would buy a water will buy a coke but I'm willing to bet a large number of people who are just plain thirsty will buy something… Indeed, what I find fascinating is that no one is talking about banning coke, fruit juice or any other drink. These are all made from concentrate and are… 97% water… Fascinating to me that water alone is a problem but the moment you add something to it, it's okay to sell…. the logic escapes me.

  8. david_a_eaves

    Ryan, if there were a drinking fountain on every corner I'd might be right with you. Indeed, if there was a orange juice fountain on every corner, I might even be talked into banning it as well. The fact is, there isn't. Again, I feel you are missing the point – many people are not buying the water. They are buying the convenience. Yes, it says a lot about our indulgence. But so does canned coke or fruit juice. At least this indulgence is relatively healthy. Please read my original post on this subject where I suggest the city offer it's own competing product (Which it could offer in recyclable containers at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the GHG footprint). Now that would be a far more interesting solution. That, or a drinking fountain on every corner…

  9. Charles Tsai

    You're saying a bottled water ban = more drinking of soda = diabetes. I think that's too big a leap.Yes, someone who would buy water might occasionally buy soda but would they drink it enough to become obese and get diabetes? I doubt that. They probably would stop before getting to that point.Those who would drink sugar water till they become obese and diabetic probably wouldn't buy bottled water to begin with.For me the choices are:1) keep selling bottled water and spend millions on recycling campaigns hoping people will recycle more plastic bottles.2) place a ban and spend millions on educating people on how to limit consumption of junk food and drinksWith all the money we've spent on recycling campaigns and how little we got from them, I'd say let's try option #2.

  10. david_a_eaves

    Charles, the root of this post is the discussion that those who are opposed to bottle water fail to understand why it is that people drink it. Yes there are some who think it is of higher quality, but I'm willing to guess that the vast majority – like me – buy it because it is convienent. This has nothing to do with education. I bet that even if people knew bottled water was less good than tap water they'd still buy it when on the move. When I'm out working out and I get thirsty – I occasionally buy a bottle of water. It is a healthier choice than anything else – Gatorade, juice or pop. My problem is that people who want to ban bottled water fail to understand why people buy it – they think it is because people don't trust the water supply. I'm arguing that's not the case. Can I tell for you sure that this is the reason… no. But I'm not hearing any proof to the contrary either.The fact is, when people get thirsty they are going to buy something liquid. By removing water from shelves you don't erase the marketplace, you simply delete one choice – the choice that happens to be the healthiest. Should we ban the bottled water coolers that people put in offices and homes. Yes. Should we make sure that restaurants and work places give people cups so they can drink tap water. Yes. But should we ban bottled water? My sense is no.If you are opposed to waste – then why single out water? Why not ban pop, juice and everything else. Why not make pop drinkers carry around refill containers? Why single out the healthiest option on the menu?

  11. Jeremy Vernon

    It is obvious that people are buying the convenience rather than the water – I've seen many MANY people walk straight past water fountains located all over campus (most, if not all of them entirely usable) up to a vending machine and purchase a bottle of water.Both Starbucks and Second Cup offer free water to customers in easily carried cups, they also manage, somehow, to retain a lucrative offering of bottled water. The difference? I can toss my bottled water in my backpack. This is inarguably and evidently worth $1 to many people.I've also seen many SUVs, vans trucks and such with the rear piled-high with flats of water bottles rather than simply a tank filled with water. This indicates a concern for form-factor and disposability (little Ike can't forget his $10 Nalgene bottle at soccer practice without his mom getting mad)If waste is your concern – ban all waste generating products, arbitrarily picking one is nonsense. If access to clean drinking water is a concern, charge a tax on bottled water to build better water-access infrastructure. Bottled water is a transient consumer trend, sure, it replaced the consumption of Coke etc. with the consumption of water. The waste generated is a consequence of people making healthier choices – claiming otherwise denies consumer data accumulated over a decade (Coke shareholders are reminded annually that Dasani has a fatter margin than Coke Classic so we shouldn't worry about it chewing up Classic's market-share)Banning it pushes the distribution back to 1988 without affecting market demand for beverages (look at energy drinks if you want to see what kind of crap the market can sustain). There's no sound economic argument to be made for selectively banning bottled water outright.

  12. Gayle

    hi folks, my plaxo has been spamming me on this conversation so I've decided to add…I know this guy in Seattle that is (I think) CEO of a North American counterpart for a bio-water bottle …check it out: He has a lot of really smart things to say on this topic. 'portable reseable nature of bottled water makes it a healthy alternative to juice and pop' are his words… I do believe there a lot of opportunities for us to reduce water bottle consumption, but I like the bio-bottles for times of need when I don't want pop/juice and wish they were in Canada. I haven't done enough research on the cons of such bottles, but would be interested to know if there are any. Much better than the bottles made by Coke and Pepsi (remember these guys make bottled water) and reminds me that Coke or Pepsi, I apologize I can't remember which, offered my university a ridiculous sum of money (back in the day) to partake in an exclusivity agreement, which would require the university to disable, disarm, and remove water fountains…Our student counsel said “No”. Polaris even did some research on this…… Of course I'll happily drink tap when I can – but I've been lots of places where that wasn't either an option at all, or a smart one!

  13. Sara Ehrhardt

    An interesting experiment: find a company (get a local coffee shop?) to purchase empty plastic bottles and fill them up for you with tap water for a charge (so you can put it in your backpack). How much would you pay?David you know this is a sensitive one with me. The challenge here is that many people want convenient water – enough that as one person mentioned it is likely economically efficient to re-invest in our public water infrastructure and simply make it more convenient, requiring modern-day, outside-of-the-fountain thinking.Society's had this problem before. But now that our 20th century public water infrastructure is falling apart (or was insufficient to begin with…or advancements in packaging have increased our standards of convenience…) is leading many to fend for themselves – companies to profit from an untapped market without having to account for the externalities of their product, individuals to pay a a marginal price for quick (albeit likely pareto inefficient) gratification rather than invest (through public taxation presumably) into a longer-term efficient, convenient collective infrastructure for water distribution.Even more challenging is that as private bottled water propagates, it actually reduces the likelihood that the efficient, convenient collective infrastructure will emerge because it becomes less and less needed (i.e. private bottled water is all over the place now, so why figure out how to get public water in environmentally friendly packaging all over the place? and why bother with fountains anyway?) This causes some to lose in the immediate – like say the homeless in the summer heat, as public fountains become less accessible – and ultimately leads us all to lose in the long-term due to an inefficient solution to a collective public problem.

  14. Charles Tsai

    >>>Why not make pop drinkers carry around refill containers?That's exactly what youth are thinking these days.…We need people to get used to carrying around beverage containers. The more people do, the more innovative (and convenient) they become.Recycling will never come close to solving our sustainability challenges.We need a new way forward (to old ways).Are you with us? Or are you against us?!!You're not winning this one, Dave!!!! :)

  15. david_a_eaves

    Wow – now we are invoking George Bush's language – with us or against us? :)This post was never about winning or losing. It was about trying to understand what is driving the marketplace so that we can propose policy ideas that will address the issue, not create other negative externalities. I think I've said my piece on this thread, happy to have readers judge us accordingly. Want to head down to Sara's comment….

  16. david_a_eaves

    Sara – thank you for the thoughtful comment. I think your counterfactual regarding the empty plastic bottle is interesting. I know that given the choice, I would do it (indeed, I have!). Tap water in a bottle is still preferable to juice or Gatorade on most occasions (that's my preference anyway…).The point here is that there are a large number of citizens who want (and are willing to pay for) that service. And it is a healthy choice! The deeper questions are the ones that you hint at. If consumers would like to make that choice can we allow for it in a way that a) minimizes the environmental impact and b) doesn't threaten or undermine the public water infrastructure. I think the answer to both questions is yes.I'm not sure that I agree that a private alternative diminishes the desire for a strong public alternative. Public schools are still able to wrestle significant funding from government despite the presence of private schools in this country. This is an important debate – one that we shouldn't gloss over, but I'm not sure that forcing consumers to not buy bottled water will make them more invested in the public system, especially if it isn't meeting the need that bottled water fills (portable water).There are also some problematic assumptions in some of your points. For example you assume (or at least suggest) that pirvate bottled water can't be packaged in environmentally friendly packaging. The flip assumption is that public infrastructure water – once made portable – will be in environmentally sensitive packaging…What I don't understand is why a heightened tax, or better still deposit, on bottled water – one that funded a top-class recycling program and helped fund public water infrastructure – isn't preferable to an outright ban?Great comment – thanks again for swinging by.

  17. alvinsingh

    Good points David. For me, however, the reason why I dislike the idea of bottled water is the environmental cost of taking huge quantities of water out of regional water sources and transporting it all over the country or world. It's true that people are paying for convenience, but that doesn't mean all they're getting is convenience. What happens when large companies take vast amounts of water out of local communities has been especially well documented in India and is happening across North America as well. While these problems could be mitigated with proper regulations, doing so would make bottled water far more costly for the producers (better reflecting the true value of the resource I think). If it was done though, we might just find out how much people are really willing to pay for this convenience.

  18. david_a_eaves

    Alvin – couldn't agree more. Would love to see the full cost of water born by the buyers. Again, banning feels like a fairly blunt and problematic solution as per my previous post on this subject.

  19. Patrick

    David,Could one not just bring a reusable bottle to fill up at the tap and water foutain for mobile uses such as the car or walking around town. This would also save on waste and allow people to consume water from theri own recepticle. Many people already do this with coffee ie. travel mugs or thermoses. Cheers,Patrick

  20. rikia

    Dave, I'm with you. People choose a packaged beverage for convenience, then they decide vitamin/calorie/chemical content. Shipping water around the world is ridiculous, but when did shipping that water become ok as long as we add sugar, colouring and caffeine to it?

  21. david_a_eaves

    Patrick. People could, but they don't. I suspect the number of people who use reusable coffee mugs is minuscule. This is why I wrote this post – we need to try to understand what is motivating people and what they are paying for. Only by doing that can we begin to figure out the right approach – one that ensures a healthy option is preserved but that also minimizes the negative environmental and social justice impacts.

  22. zac

    well, if you had the choice to go buy water or there is a water fountain nearby, then i'm sure you would just opt for the fountian.

  23. zac

    These more liberal polices about providing it free, rather than selling it need some concrete to back it up. Given a choice, an institution or business will opt to selling water because of the temporary convenience and to boost revenue. The important principle is giving people a choice to make a better decision in this regard, not take away the choice to buy a bottle.If there is a water fountain provided, then the choice is visible and possible. I argue that legislation should mandate the requirement of water fountains in institutions and public facilities/areas just like street lights and washrooms are basic requirements in these areas. A washroom is not exactly the place of choice to fill up a water bottle either.

  24. steve

    It should be noted that many companies like Coke pay institutions like colleges to actually take out water fountains and put in vending machines that sell bottled water. This is the case at my school. The ideal solution would be to increase the amount of water fountains everywhere, stop the sale of pop completely and introduce a system where someone can simply pick up a reusable bottle and deposit it in a receptacle which is then reused again.

  25. Arceli

    Those people buying chilled water in plastic bottle out of convenience are also conveniently tossing away empty bottles and let everyone else suffer the environmental consequence and evidently causing everyone else to pay for their convenience since it is the taxpayer's money that clean up these trash.

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