28 Apr 2011

Boycott bottled water?

Carlton Krumpfes emails:
This Earth Day we are starting a bottled water boycott! The bottled water boycott is a battle cry for consumers to form a collective conscious in a process to rescue the planet, influence big business, save money, improve health, and quench the globe’s thirst with cleaner, healthier, cheaper water for all.
So the website has a few posts and some ads for home water purification systems, but my main concern is with the ineffective nature of this boycott:
  1. A small reduction in demand (by boycotters) will merely lower the price for others who continue to use bottled water. That's not going to do much for pollution or water sustainability.
  2. Bottled water from municipal supplies is sustainable (assuming that the municipality as a whole is not mismanaging itself into shortage). Water from springs and groundwater CAN be sustainable, if it's a small share of total flows. I can say that because bottled water extractions in the US are way less than 0.1 percent of total water use.
  3. The real problems (to me) are the weight of driving bottled water around and problems in disposing of and recycling plastic bottles. (Ironically, those problems exist with soda drinks and consumer products but few people want to boycott all of them!)
  4. My solution (more detail in my book) is to levy a $0.10 deposit on all bottles. Half that deposit is returned when the bottles are recycled (which will reduce bottle litter); the other half is used to make bottles into other useful plastic products (which takes care of disposal).
Why do I propose a deposit/refund scheme instead of a boycott? Because a small group cannot do much to affect everyone else when they STOP using the product. Rather than push that string, they can work together to get laws/regulations passed that apply to ALL consumers, thereby having a real impact on things that matter (litter and disposal).

The "20/80 rule" says that 20 percent of people "do the right thing" while 80 percent of people don't care but do watch prices. A ten cent deposit would send a useful price signal to the 80 percent: A higher price on bottled water will probably reduce demand and sales volume by more than a boycott would.

Bottom Line: Sometimes people don't care about your passion for the Earth and self-sacrifice. Better to change incentives so that they face the consequences of their actions.