Banning bottled water outright doesn’t make sense. Better to add a deposit to the price and let the market take care of the rest.
Just over a month ago, the grocery store Metro introduced a five-cent fee for single-use bags in Ontario and Quebec. Since then, the chain has distributed 70 per cent fewer bags compared to the monthly average and demand for reusable bags has increased by five times. As Metro spokesperson Selena Fiacco notes, this confirms that customers are willing to change their shopping habits.
This is great news. Fewer plastic bags in the world can only be a good thing.
It would be nice to think that the Metro example could influence those involved in the bottled water debate. Alas, anti-bottled water activists press on, trying to get municipalities to ban the product outright.
There are a number of problems with banning the sale of bottled water. First, there are all sorts of other drinks that will continue to be sold: Coke, orange juice, Fruitopia – all of which contain a lot more sugar and are generally less healthy for you than … water. Banning water may be seen as a victory, unless it means someone is going to buy something else, something that is less healthy and will increase health costs over the long term.
Second, anti-bottled water activists don’t seem to understand why people buy bottled water in the first place. People don’t just drink it for the flavour or safety (if they do at all) but because it is convenient. They aren’t paying $1.50 for the water – they are paying $1.50 for the convenience of being able to drink a healthy beverage and then dispose of the container.
Is tap water cheaper? Absolutely, but it doesn’t come in a container you can take anywhere and then dispose of when you are done. For many people keeping track of a container is quite frankly a drag. Bottled water is simply easy. If you try to force people away from bottled water, most will probably end up making a worse choice, like buying a Coke.
Then there is the argument that tap water is more stringently regulated (and thus safer) than bottled water. This is true, but absolute safety is irrelevant. The real question is, is bottled water safe enough to drink? The answer to this is obviously yes (do you know anyone who’s ever gotten sick drinking bottled water?). The marginal benefit of imperceptibly cleaner tap water is basically zero.
There are those who are concerned about the waste generated by bottled water. I am squarely in this camp – deeply concerned about the environmental impact of these containers. It is here where the lesson of the single-use bag fee can be utilized: people are price-sensitive and, as such, we can nudge them to make better choices.
Take the (underutilized) power of deposits. The key with a deposit is that it must be significant enough to encourage users to adopt an alternative (a reusable container) or recycle the disposable container. And while I’m not 100 per cent certain, my sense is that deposits on bottles have not changed much since their inception. With inflation factored in, this means the relative value of the deposit against the overall purchase price of a beverage has declined markedly in the last 30 or so years.
Consider my home province of British Columbia (which has the oldest legislated deposit-return system in North America) and its 5-cent refundable deposit. If this amount has remained unchanged since 1970 when deposits were introduced, then, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, a 5-cent deposit in 1970 would have been worth the equivalent of 28 cents in 2009 dollars. Imagine if small water bottles had a 30-cent deposit on them and 2-litre bottles had a 75-cent or one-dollar deposit. I suspect people would be slightly more motivated to not litter, and some people would be further motivated to use their reusable containers. I’d even be willing to consider a still higher deposit to encourage re-use.
Regardless of the actual deposit, such a system has the benefit of not punishing healthy choices (like, say, water) and thereby indirectly rewarding unhealthy choices (like Coke). It simply treats all beverages equally.
With a little imagination and tweaking, the humble deposit could once again be a powerful influencer in the debate on how to deal with bottled drinks.