Tag Archives: bottled water

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.

Plastic bag fees, inflation and lessons for bottled water

bottled-water-234x300Just over a month ago the grocery store Metro introduced a five-cent fee for single-use bags in Ontario and Quebec. According to a recent press release Metro grocery stores distributed 70 per cent fewer bags compared to the monthly average and demand for reusable bags has increased by five times. As Metro spokesperson, Selena Fiacco notes, this “confirm(s) that customers are willing to change their shopping habits.”

This is great news. Fewer plastic bags in the world can only be a good thing.

It would be nice to think that the lessons from this press release could influence those involved in the bottled water debate. As some of my readers know, I’ve argued that efforts to ban bottled water have been poorly thought through. The above press release plays to the point of these posts: people are price sensitive and that we can nudge them to make better choices. This strikes me as a far less problematic than removing water as an option from corner stores during an obesity and diabetes epidemic. Why remove the healthiest choice? However, this does not mean I wish to see an increase, or even continued use of disposable container bottles.

The above press release reminds me of the (underutilized) power of deposits. The key with a deposit is that it must significant enough to encourage users to adopt an alternative (reusable container) or recycle the disposable container. Am not 100% certain but my sense is that deposits on bottles have not changed much since their inception. With inflation factored in, this means the relative value of the deposit against the overall purchase price of a beverage has declined markedly in the last 30+ years.

Consider my home province of British Columbia (which has the oldest legislated deposit-return system in North America) and its 5¢ refundable deposit. If this amount has remained unchanged since 1970 when deposits were introduced (has any jurisdiction raised deposit values?) then, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator a 5¢ deposit in 1970 is worth 28¢ in 2009 dollars. Imagine if small water bottles had a 30¢ deposit on them? And if 2L bottles had a 75¢ or $1.00 deposit. I suspect people would be slightly more motivated to not litter, and some people would be further motivated to use their reusable containers. I’d even be willing to consider a still higher deposit to encourage re-use. Regardless of the actual deposit, such a system has the benefit of not punishing healthy choices (like, say water) and thereby indirectly reward unhealthy choices (like, say Coke). It simply treats all beverages equally.

With a little imagination and tweaking the humble deposit could once again be a powerful influencer in the debate on how to deal with bottled drinks.

For some interesting facts on deposits and container waste, check out this site.

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?

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.

Bottled Water haters have it wrong

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.

discarded bottles 2Am 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…