06 September 2016

Bottled water is not a problem, it's a symptom

Via email, I received this:
There is no reason for companies to produce bottled water in developed countries when healthy tap water is available at a fraction of the cost, bottled water is highly inefficient, costly, unsustainable, and a poorly regulated business.
Allow me to object, item by item:
There is no reason for companies to produce bottled water in developed countries when healthy tap water is available...
But they do, without guns to their heads, so it must be both profitable and in-demand. These forces are not necessarily evil, unless you want to have a LONG conversation about profits and/or people's tastes. (Wait a sec on "externalities"!)
...fraction of the cost
And thanks god for that, as safe tap water is always cheaper than bottled water. I consider safe tap water as the first requirement of "developed" status. Now you have to ask yourself: what about parts of "developed countries" where the tap water is NOT safe to drink, from say industrial or agricultural pollution. In those cases, I'd say that country wasn't as developed as it claimed. Hear that, USA, Canada and a few others?
bottled water is highly inefficient, costly, unsustainable...
...from an economics standpoint, these mean the same thing. Inefficient means costs exceed benefits. I can imagine that to be true when you factor in the pollution costs of plastic production and plastic waste on ecosystems, but then we'd have to accuse bottled softdrinks of the same sins. (This is why I want a deposit on plastic bottles, to encourage recycling.) If you wanted merely to talk about wasting money, then I'd have to ask you why so many utilities use "average cost pricing" to sell desalinated water that costs $2 to make for $1. Isn't that inefficient?

On the question of costly, I'd need you to explain why bottled water is so bad but iPhones are good. Aren't iPhones more costly?

On unsustainable, I'd have to ask if this practice could "continue indefinitely," and I'd say yes, given the high price of water. I'm pretty sure it's easier to get bottled water in a drought than it is for a farmer to get (usually subsidized) surface water deliveries.
a poorly regulated business...
I'm not sure if the bottled water business is more poorly regulated than the tap water business. I know that 3 billion people lack access to safe tap water, and I know that I can get good bottled water in many of their countries, so perhaps bottled water "regulation" (via markets, professionalism, or government agency) is doing rather well in those countries. Are there incentives for bottled water makers to cut corners? Sure. Some definitely pump random groundwater they sell as spring water. But then you have to remember examples like Flint, Michigan, where the public water company cut corners in such an incompetent way as to endanger the entire city.

Bottom Line Bottled water, like tap water, needs to be clean and safe to benefit us. There are many aspects to improving water quality and they should all be pursued with respect to bottled and tap water.

If you're interested in this topic, then check out the City Water Project -- an effort by me and my students to improve information on water quality in cities around the world.

Addendum (8 Sep): A funny but insightful review of a refillable water bottle. (Don't forget that you need to use it 500+ times to have a "lower footprint" than using plastic bottles. Those reusable bottles they give you at eco-conferences? Total earth killer if they just end up on the shelf or tossed.)


  1. Excellent post, David.

    Bottled water is essentially a consumer product and has every right to be regulated and safe.

    [The presence of this demand doesn't seem to me to be directly taking away from the tap water, as bottled water consumers - at least in developing countries - are generally not those who are without tap water. They are a bit wealthier. ]

    Of course, tap water is a service that certainly should be available and well-regulated in both developed and developing country cities, but, at least in poor countries, the gap between what should be and what is is an ancient ocean wide.

  2. The link to "How Green Is My Bottle?" is much appreciated. I've been making this (and many similar) argument(s) to my wife for years.

  3. Just because something is in demand does not mean it is necessary, or good in any way. In the west, all kinds of junk is in demand, and profitable to those who sell them.

    1. Indeed. So "who are you" to say it's good or junk? If you want to bring judgement (=regulation) into the arena, are you prepared to lose access to the "junk" you demand?


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