Water Footprint and the bottled water debate

As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of campaigns to ban bottled water for reasons I’ve outlined here and here (the short version is, bottled water is a healthier choice than coke or even OJ, so why no ban those?).

Those who wish to ban bottled water usually fall into two camps. There are those who believe that water should never be sold, under any circumstances. Here, there is simply an ideological difference. Frankly, I’m glad that someone is selling water so that on the rare occasion I’m on the move and want to buy something to drink I have a healthy option such as water and don’t have to buy pop or juice. Moreover, I’m not sure what a ban on selling water would look like. I can imagine that Dasani would start selling “containers” with water included for “free”.

The second camp are those who worry about the carbon impact of shipping and selling water. I completely agree with this groups concerns. I believe all products (water, coke, orange juice) should have to fully account for the environmental impact of their product. I too find water shipped in from Fiji offensive. Indeed, this is why I proposed that cities sell bottled water themselves – to lower the carbon footprint, mandate recycling, and radically under-price the established multinationals.

A reader found the chart below in the economist and sent it to me. It uses data from Waterfootprint.org and adds more complexity to the debate:

water footprint

My main disagreement with an outright ban is that it removes a healthy choice for consumers from store shelves. Now I see that it does something else as well, it removes a choice that has the lowest water footprint. From a water conservation perspective, we shouldn’t ban bottled water, we should ban coffee.

My fear is that this debate is now more about symbols than it is about good public health, water and environmental policy. Again, this is what drove my initial proposal at the bottom of this post. How do we make a healthy choice convenient and portable but balance that against the legitimate environmental and water concerns?

16 thoughts on “Water Footprint and the bottled water debate

  1. Tariq

    For me, the issue isn't about whether or not to sell it, it's about the price that we pay. Bottled water, a declining resource in both quantity and quality, is not being sold at a price that represents it's true value. The same can be said of most items that one could buy off any shelf in any store. In other words, the environmental costs of doing business are not reflected in the price we pay. I believe they should be. How that is “quantified”, I will leave up to those who are more “qualified” to say. That said, I am not advocating that we privatize and/or increase the costs of tap water. I'm thinking strictly in the realm of the bottled variety. The positive byproduct of reflecting environmental costs into the price of bottled water could be that more people buy re-usable water bottles instead, reducing the demand on plastics and landfills.

  2. Conrad Barwa

    Actually can't find too much to disagree with here which scares me tbh; if we are on the same side in a debate I gotta start wondering where I took a wrong turn.What pisses me off though is bottled water in emerging countries like India/Bangladesh; where it is priced out of the reach of the mass of people but within that of the middle classes. In a system where clean piped drinking water isn't available this removes an important constituency that would force the state to deliver it.

  3. Tariq

    Good point, Conrad. I hadn't thought of the accessibility issues for areas where tap water is not potable. Even areas in Canada where there have been boil orders in place for far too long. One policy across the board may not be practical, or ethical. How do we balance incorporating environmental costs into the price of the products we buy, and at the same time respect the most basic of human rights with regards to access to water (or any other basic need for that matter). Ah, ethics. How complicated thou art.

  4. david_a_eaves

    Baba – we agree on lots of things! Why do you hurt me so?I completely agree with you regarding the bottled water issues in the developing world. In the developed world the bottled water market really centres around convenience, not access. The key is to ensure that there is always a baseline access to safe and sanitary water for all citizens.

  5. david_a_eaves

    Completely agree – the question for me isn't whether we do or don't ban bottled water, but do we ensure that everything sold – water, coke, orange juice, coffee – reflects the full costs of its production and impact. If there is still a market for bottled water after the environmental costs are accounted for, so be it.

  6. Christopher Blizzard

    Weird. I'm made crazy by the bajillion plastic bottles that are used. But beyond that? I could care less. (Other than we need a general carbon tax that might be included in the price of a shipped bottle of water.)

  7. CharlesGYF

    I'm still not convinced that a ban would lead significant numbers of people who would normally buy water to then buy an unhealthy beverage. It just doesn't compute.Also, bans being proposed and enacted are quite nuanced… not for all bottled water everywhere.To me, water footprint is irrelevant in this debate.We can settle this by agreeing to raise bottle deposits to something meaningful – like a dollar per bottle – across the board, including sodas, juices, etc.

  8. CharlesGYF

    EVERYONE – For Dave's birthday, let's buy him a reusable water bottle of his choice. Who wants to chip in?Dave, want to pick one out that you would want to use?

  9. sassy

    We can settle this by agreeing to raise bottle deposits to something meaningful – like a dollar per bottle – across the board, including sodas, juices, etc.With you 100% on that. I have a couple of water bottles that I have used over and over and will continue to do to.

  10. david_a_eaves

    Agreed, this is what I've been advocating from the beginning. Let's reflect the cost. Not ban.

  11. david_a_eaves

    Thank you Charles – I have a bottle already. The challenge is that I don't carry it with me everyday, everywhere I go (and I won't be… I've already lost enough of them that way). However, my birthday is May 31st… and for those so inclined here are some charities I'm big fans of:Take a HikeForestEthicsKivaOf course, you could also buy me a book from my amazon wish list… :)

  12. CharlesGYF

    I'm going to raise money as well from children in the downtown east side and ask them to give their week's allowance for this cause. We want to make you feel guilty every time you look at the bottle or forget to bring it with you when you're out and about.

  13. Dave Macdonald

    A little late on this one, but this reminds me of Peter Brabeck (CEO, Nestlé) in We Feed The World. He describes two extreme views on water: The first is the view that water is essential to life and should be available to all. The other is that water is simply a food stuff and should have value attached accordingly. It seems the real issue related to this discussed here is that the value should be recognized legitimately as opposed to artificially created, or undervalued, in order to provide profit to a few “important” components of bottled water's value chain.In a comment, David touched on local bottled water being a convenience issue, not an access issue, and how that is not true in other parts of the world. I entirely agree and contend that policies related to being green, sustainable, etc. can, and should, draw on precedents from other jurisdictions, but really need to be made with a clear understanding of the local situation.

  14. Rob Wynen

    Great food for thought, I generally support a ban but do understand some of the issues raised. To me the big problem is the idea that even when perfectly clean water is available people buy bottled water with all the associated environmental impacts in a time when we are trying to go green. I work in a community centre and people will buy water at $1.50 out of a machine that is less then 2 metres from a water fountain. Almost seems like some of these people take pleasure in creating waste. The advertising around bottled water also troubles me as some of it is completely misleading and I wish the government would take a bigger role in combating this misinformation. The reality is that as people begin to increasingly rely on bottled water there is less impetus to ensure our public water supply remains clean. This argument is also very big in the private vs public health care system. Let the rich buy health care and their need for a good public system diminishes as these individuals are no longer dependent on the public system. Have a great day and thanks for the debate, Rob

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