I’m a big believer that public policy cannot be written in a vacuum. All too often people become obsessed that their issue or problem is the only problem and so design policies that address their concern while ignoring secondary effects that can be as, if not more, costly.
This has been my point in the debate on bottled water. An outright ban might decrease the number of bottles that head to the landfill every year, but at what cost? First, if someone doesn’t buy water, I’ve suggested there is a good chance they’ll by something else… say Coke… which has many more calories and is less healthy. What are the aggregate health costs of having people drink more high-fructose corn syrup? Secondarily, if people are buying other drinks, then they aren’t really reducing the amount of waste, they are simply substituting it with other waste. We need to understand the bottled water not as strictly and environmental issue, but as a systems problem that impacts a number of areas. (Hence, why I’ve argued for any, and preferably larger, deposits on bottled water).
When I’ve written about this is the past some people have understandably disagreed with my logic, claiming that those who buy bottled water would never (or only rarely) buy a different, higher calorie drink. Recently, however, I stumbled across this interesting article in The Telegraph. It discusses the decline consumption of bottled water in Britain. The quote I found particularly interesting was this one:
Last year the bottled water market suffered a significant fall, as consumers – swayed by an environmental campaign and the high cost – turned away from the once fashionable drink.
However, figures from the market research firm AC Nielsen, which tracks in detail the spending habits of tens of thousands of consumers each week, indicated that 71 per cent of the money saved was spent not on free tap water, but rather than sugary soft drinks…
…this equates to Britons consuming an extra 1,700 tonnes of sugar and 6.8 billion calories,
So it would appear that if we ban bottled water there is a cost – in terms of health – that we should be expected to pay as a society. Moreover, while there is some reduction in waste it is not absolute, indeed, since just over 70% of money is still spent on beverages it is quite significant. This of course is because (as I’ve been arguing) people aren’t buying the water, they are buying the convenience (something they are less willing to pay for during a recession and hence the decline). Indeed, this hypothesis has been confirmed by another British survey conducted by the University of Birmingham. Its researchers:
…found that convenience and taste — not health — were the main motivating factors for choosing bottled water.
“The majority of participants believed that bottled water has some health benefits, but that they were not necessarily significant or superior to the benefits provided by tap water. Convenience and taste were more influential factors for participants when deciding to buy a bottle of water”.
So let us stop trying to scare or guilt consumers out of buying bottled water and instead focus on solutions that address both health and environmental issues. I suspect that if we increased bottle deposits significantly on all beverage containers (and made sure water containers had deposits on them) we might discover that people a) buy fewer beverages, b) will be more inclined to recycle/re-use the containers and c) don’t create an incentive to purchase sugary high-fructose beverages over water.
Okay, barring some national emergency, I promise not to write on bottled water again for a while – it’s just that the topic makes for such a great policy case study on looking at an issue as a system versus seeing it as single issue problem.