05.10.07

Bottled Water: an unlikely case in environmental economics

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Health, Pollution, Resources at 10:09 pm by justakim

With a cough, I took a gulp from my water bottle and coincidentally browsed this article on the externalities of tap water, As one considers the fastest growing beverage market, one can see how it is at the same time, the most ludicrus thing and the most natural outcome of modern tastes.

Water, that is often of no higher quality than local tap water, is bottled in disposable plastic containers, chilled in vending machines, and sold at a price, while at the same time, that much water won’t make a dent in your utility bill.. And don’t forget the cost of transport.

But it makes so much sense! Health-conscious Americans are trying to drink more water and less soda. The bottles provide the conveinience that carrying around your own bottle lacks. And who wants to drink from a public fountain? There’s no telling what people have been doing with the spout. And recycling is just so inconvenient. If one was going to recycle, one would have brought one’s own bottle… And so it goes.

Plus the fancy mineral spring waters, brand names, vintages, what have you. I understand that different water tastes different certainly. But these fancy springs can run dry. They should be demanding fancier prices.

Tap water and bottled water are by no means perfect substitutes. Among other differences, real and perceived, people are willing to pay for the bottle that holds the water, and for the ability to dispose of it.

This problem, this logical culmination of desires and incentives, leads me to two thoughts.

First, perhaps people are not paying enough, either for the bottles or for the delivery.

Second, if it costs more for disposable bottles, we’d be willing to buy better water bottles. Things that are more conveinient to carry around, or store cold better, or weigh less. If it were easier to carry around your own tap water, the appeal of the disposable bottle will diminish. Picture a flask that keeps your water cold all day long, then packs away into a 1″ cube when empty. Who’d pay for these if a cheap one’s just fine?

I don’t know to what extent externalities are generated from bottled water, but I find it unlikely that shipping in someone else’s bottled tap water is the best use of the resources we have. But given current gas prices, disposal costs, and water subsidies, it’s just not worth our while to work out something better yet.

Comments are closed.