The Bottled Water Debate Redux (a public policy case)

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.

11 thoughts on “The Bottled Water Debate Redux (a public policy case)

  1. Columbia Water

    If the argument is that most people buy bottled water on the basis of convenience and taste, how will a focus on health and environmental issues, or even deposit increases, help combat their sales? It would seem, according to the Telegraph article, that our typical bottled water consumer is not one who is plagued by thirst, or troubled by the unnecessary expenditure of a dollar or two. It is, rather, more likely someone who has a few dollars in his pocket while he hovers over a cooler or in front of a vending machine. If he is troubled by a recent ad campaign rattling the industry of bottled water, which had perhaps condemned the sale of water as commodity, his hand will scan over the Dasani, but will not leave the scene altogether. It will then debate between a ginger ale and an iced tea. If this hypothetical typical consumer wants a single-serving beverage, he probably wants it right now, and he won't extend the arguments against bottled water to the other drinks in front of them. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the history of those attacking the industry of bottled water has been so varied, its participants seemingly so fickle…. Sometimes it is the groundwater exploitation that is attacked; others go after natural gases used to transport the bottles; still others criticize the lack of incentive to recycle, the quality of the water, or the idea of commodifying a public good at all. Or any combination of these. Coherent and comprehensive education, in this case, is our best first step to address the current situation.

  2. Stephen Bradley

    We at Quiverblog recognise that individuals will make their own choices over the beveradges that they wish to consume, whether this be via 'sustainable' reusable bottles or the convenience of a single service 'expendable' bottle. Rather than ban or limit choice, particularly when there are issues over municipal water quality,we would rather see the focus being placed on encouraging companies who supplyall types of beveradges to look towards truly biodegradable options. After all how many recyclable products actually make it to the afterlife? We know that corn starch has been looked at in the past but this requires sunlight to break down, not readily accessible in landfill sites. In march this year Aquamantra began selling their water in a bottle claimed by the manufacturer, Cleantech, to break down in 1 to 5 years, even in landfill. Shouldn't advances in technology be the way forward rather than the draconian measures we are seeing today?

  3. CharlesGYF

    I agree with you about raising the deposits significantly and that it's better to address all bottled beverages, not just water.But I wouldn't be so quick to assume bans on bottled water would lead to increased consumption of sugary drinks. The AC Nielsen numbers measure industry sales not behavior change after a ban. The article doesn't even reference any bans.All we know is that water sales declined and sugary drink sales increased. But you can't assume one caused – or is strongly correlated with – the other. What is most likely the case – in the absence of bans – is that people are choosing those sugary drinks even when there are bottled water nearby. It might have to do with the recession – people want to buy cheap calories. Or it might be good marketing by soft drink companies. Or it might just be business as usual. Those sales figures probably increase year after year anyway.

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  5. Name

    Great article. I have been thinking exactly the same thing. Proponents of the ban want to be able to say “we helped the environment by banning bottled water”, but don't care to ask whether they actually acheived a net result.I know personally I try to avoid buying individual drinks due to the cost. When I do, it is because I am out, I am thirsty and I have no drink with me. Then I like to buy bottled water because I don't want to consume unnecessary sugary gunk. If bottled water was banned, then on those occasions I would just buy that sugary gunk to quench my thirst.The only question I have for you is, if you can see the unintended consequences of ill-thought-out legislation, why are you on liblogs, you should be on bloggingtories :-)

  6. CharlesGYF

    Hi Name,Sure, on those rare occasions when you absolutely have no choice (and how often is that exactly?), you might consume those sugary drinks. But will they make you unhealthy? I don't think so, if drinking soda is more the exception than the rule.Those who get obese and diabetic from these drinks are not drinking them on rare occasion. They're drinking 32 ounces per day or more.

  7. David Eaves

    I think we're at a point where it doesn't matter what evidence says, CharlesGYF you've already made up your mind. First, it is the AC Nielsen report is the one that makes the causation not me. Second, you keep reverting to anecdotes and what you would do. That's great, but the world isn't you, and not everyone does or will behave the way you do. It's okay if you've decided to take an ideological stand on this. It's been acknowledged. For me, I believe it is increasingly obvious there are negative health implications to removing bottled water from the market, something that has to factor into the decision. Denying this without evidence looks like zealotry, not evidence based public policy.

  8. CharlesGYF

    Dave, I haven't taken an ideological stand. You've already talked me out of a ban. What more do you want? :) You're the one who won't seem to budge.I just don't think the assumptions you're making about water purchasers are correct.There might very well be evidence of negative health implications but the data you quote is not it. I hope public policy people don't make decisions based on that.

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