The Bottled Water Paradox

Water Bottle, uploaded by Sarah Ross

I’m lucky enough to have grown up and lived in a pretty educated community here in Cascadia. Almost all of my friends and family are keen on climate change issues and the environmental detriment of our current culture. They may not all be self-professed “environmentalists” but they almost certainly make efforts to reduce the negative impacts of their actions on both humans and ecosystems.

This is why the issue of bottled water is so perplexing: we know they’re bad, but we use them anyway. A Google search for the problems with bottle water produces literally dozens of lists of reasons not to drink bottle water. Talking to any one of my friends and family they would likely already know that bottled water:

  • Produces a huge amount of trash.  They contribute nearly 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year and take around 450 years to break down.
  • Requires excessive amounts of energy to produce. Around 47 million gallons of oil are used every year to bottle water.
  • Wastes lots of potential fresh water. It takes roughly 3 gallons of water for every single gallon bottled.
  • .Harms marine animal and plant life. Heaps of plastic in the ocean impact ecosystems and kill birds and fish that mistake it for food.
  • Provides absolutely no health benefits! There is in fact more regulatory oversight for municipal water systems than for bottled water operations!

All of this, and yet, I see my friends and family (and myself on occasion) drinking bottled water while reusable water bottles clutter up kitchen cabinets.

Water Bottles, uploaded by Basetrack

This small example is a quintessential illustration of the larger sustainability movement. Education is an important first step, but counting on voluntary lifestyle changes to solve our climate problems is simply irrational. As much of our political discourse should make clear, the American public (and humans in general) are incredibly adept at hold opposing thoughts in their head. In fact, some have suggested it is a sign of intelligence.

For all of our political and moral viewpoints, any economist will tell you that our daily decisions are based on maximum utility. We may be ethically opposed to bottled water, but when it is available, convenient, and relatively cheap, we will use it. This is especially true for issues in which the majority of costs are external. And really I don’t think you can fault people for this. If I’m thirsty and choose not to purchase a bottle of water, I don’t suddenly get part of the environmental benefit that is accrued from my action. I just remain thirsty and hope that my own personal satisfaction is enough. For me this is all too clear in the midst of winter, when I try and save heat. I somehow have to weigh my painfully icy toes against the life of some ambiguous polar bear in the Arctic.

This is why carbon taxes, as suggested by Hurd in The Carbon Efficient City, are absolutely neccessary . It is one of the only ways to align costs and benefits. I think taxes often get a bad rap because many people feel that they are paying for some specialized service they don’t actually use. The infamous example is property tax increases for things such as stadiums and convention centers. The argument is that there is some grander public value provided by these investments but evaluations are ambiguous.

But I would argue that a carbon tax is fundamentally different. In many ways the idea behind a carbon tax is not to disrupt the free market, but to fix it. It is trying to restore some direct tie between who loses and who wins in our transactions. We often hear that businesses are opposed to actions on climate change, saying that it is government intervening in the free market. But in reality any free market advocate should understand that our current system is deeply inefficient, in that the utility of all our goods and services is less than the mounting disutility of these actions. A carbon tax may not solve this problem but it is certainly is a step in the right direction.


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