Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Ban the bottle?

Posted by Rich Sweeney on June 30, 2008

The IHT reports that “A majority of about 250 mayors at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Miami voted to phase out regular use of bottled water for its employees and functions.” My first reaction was that this is a great idea. In the United States, bottled water is a frivolous luxury, as we have regulations in place which ensure that tap water is fit to drink (in most places, it actually tastes pretty good too). Thus, it seems pretty wasteful for local government to spend its citizens tax dollars on bottled water. Moreover, in areas where the tap water isn’t all that great, this program could be coupled with a renewed push for improved drinking water quality, using the money saved on purchasing water and disposing of the bottles to update water infrastructure.

But as I began writing this post I realized that my initial enthusiasm for the story was based on a shaky presumption. I’d assumed that municipal employees first decide what beverage to drink, then chose a vehicle of consumption (ie- they first decide that they want water, and then decide if they want tap or bottled). If this were the case, the mayors’ plan might well indeed save a lot of money and reduce waste. But what if tastes are more nuanced? Assuming that other beverages are still going to be offered besides water, banning bottled water might just induce people to drink more soda. Imagine you’re at a city function. It’s crowded and hot, and there’s a long buffet style line. At the end of the line is a separate table with an assortment of canned/ bottled beverages, including bottled water. If the hosts suddenly swapped out the bottled water for pitchers of tap, but left all of the other options, I think it’s pretty clear that substitution would occur across beverages as well as across vehicles. Now I have no idea what the actual decline in bottled beverage consumption would be, but I’m pretty confident it’s not equivalent to current municipal bottle water consumption, as the mayors would have you believe.

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