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.


  1. It might be a grand idea to take some time and investigate “why” manufacturers of drinks, water or otherwise, chose the plastic container as the product container. You might be surprised what methodology they used. You might be surprised they picked the “greenest” container delivery system, all things considered. You will find that many, many years ago at the advent of the plastic bottle container they actually considered, and considered strongly, the green element of the container. Go figure!

    But alas, its much more politically convenient to come from a notional point and spread notion as fact. Ops! That makes for fallacy.

  2. @WEH -- you are, of course, agreeing with me, but I do think it's important to divide the bottle's lifecycle into pre-sale and post-sale. Pre-sale, light and cheap is better; post-sale, environmentally benign is better.

  3. Dr. Zetland:

    They took “post” into consideration as well. That production, delivery weight in association with fuel consumption/costs, and the recycle element were all incorporated into the decision to use plastic bottles over all other alternatives. In all steps “environmentally friendly” was strongly considered as they assumed that they would be challenged by certain groups regarding final container decisions. That is, they were ahead of the curve.

  4. For someone who is already buying bottled water, would a ten cent per bottle fee do much to reduce demand? I like the overall concept, but people who buy bottled water don't seem to care about the price to begin with. I recently went to a 7-11 store in San Jose. A one liter bottle of water cost $1.69 ! San Jose Water Company tap costs $2.51/CCF. So someone who buys a one liter bottle of water already seems to be immune to crazy prices. If it were $1.79 would they not buy it? I don't know the answer.

  5. @WEH -- thanks for the clarification. I agree that they often *consider* it, but there's no incentive to get those #s right (as far as profits).

    @Ben -- the 10 cents is not so much to reduce demand as increase recycling and processing. Others (e.g., the homeless) may be tempted to get bottles back to the depot for the nickel (my original number was 50/25 cents; in the NL, the deposit is 10 cents on beer bottles and they have fun machines to pay you back :)


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