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The Case for Taxing Bottled Water

The public should be able to recoup some of the social, ethical, and environmental costs of bottled water.

Laura Leavitt of the Courage Campaign, center, carries a box of petitions during a march against Nestle bottling water during the California drought, outside a Nestle Arrowhead water-bottling plant in Los Angeles. (REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon)

Five years ago, it seemed unimaginable that a tax on plastic bags would spread from socially conscious San Francisco to cities including Los Angeles, Dallas, and Washington D.C. But it did—and early findings suggest that there have been reductions in plastic bag use.

Why don’t we do the same for bottled water? There are enormous environmental, social, and ethical costs associated with bottled water. The public should be able to recoup them.

Taxing bottled water works

Taxing bottled water has been shown to be effective by a couple of measures. First, in terms of consumer behavior: Washington state passed a bottled water tax in 2010, and though it was repealed shortly thereafter, it produced a marked reduction in bottled-water consumption. A 2013 study of that tax from U.C. Berkeley found that, “when taxed, the average quantity of bottled water purchased in treated states drops significantly, by 6.4 percent, as compared to the untaxed control states.”

And, second, in terms of tax revenue: In 2008, the city of Chicago enacted a tax of five cents per bottle of water sold retail. Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the water policy think-tank Pacific Institute, writes that, in the first five years of the tax, the city raised some $38 million from the sales of 763 million bottles of water, based on data from the Chicago Department of Finance. That’s the same amount Cook County plans to spend fixing roads this summer.

Imagine what Detroit, with its water infrastructure crisis, could do with that tax revenue: It could cover a year’s worth of water-line replacements, for example. Imagine what the country could do with that revenue. In 2013, Americans drank 10 billion gallons of bottled water, an industry record. Sales are only increasing.

The value of bottled water is utterly contrived

Bottled water is often called a luxury, but that’s not quite right—so-called “luxury” items like furs and fancy jewelry are considered luxuries in part because they’re made of rare or difficult-to-obtain materials. In the U.S., water is not rare or difficult to obtain. For the vast majority of Americans, water is delivered directly to our kitchen sinks, of a quality that’s often as good or higher than what you can get in the bottle. After all, an estimated 25 percent of bottled water comes from a tap—and no water-bottling company is required to undergo the same kind of rigorous bacteria testing that city water districts are.

Yet we are willing to pay for the bottled stuff, at a price anywhere between 240 and 10,000 times more than the price of tap water. Why? Some particularly brilliant PR—the idea that bottled water is purer, healthier, clearer than tap. “It sounded really good, and there wasn't much competition from tap water,” Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It told NPR of the industry’s early appeal.

Bottled water transcends the inessential. It’s not just that we don’t “need” bottled water; the whole proposition of being marketed into buying something you can get for almost free, at an exponentially higher cost, verges on swindling. Cities should get back some of what’s been taken.

Plastic bottles are an environmental disaster

You know this already, but it bears repeating: Although most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic, only about 13 percent of PET bottles ever make it to a recycling plant, according to the National Resources Defense Council. In 2005, about 2 million tons of plastic water bottles turned up in landfills. And there’s a cost to city sanitation departments, as plastic bottles make up a larger and larger share of household waste. This is to say nothing of the accumulation of bottles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Then there’s the carbon footprint of manufacturing and shipping bottled water. A 2009, peer-reviewed study by the Pacific Institute, a water-policy think tank, estimated that the annual consumption of bottled water in the U.S. in 2007 required the equivalent of between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil—around .3 percent of total U.S. primary energy consumption. Liter for liter, producing bottled water is about 2,000 times more energy-intensive than producing tap water. I don’t need to review the environmental and health costs of extracting and burning all that fossil fuel.

More drought is coming

There’s been lots of commotion about the hypocrisy of water-bottling companies in California continuing operations in the midst of drought. While cities are being mandated by the state asked to cut back their water use, water-bottling companies aren’t being asked to do much at all.

As I wrote earlier this month, the water these companies are using isn’t so much the issue—the bottling industry represents just a tiny fraction of overall water use. It’s more the lack of transparency, since many of the companies pump their water from the ground, and aren’t required by the state to report the amount they use. This muddies groundwater conservation efforts, and compromises our understanding of water bottling’s environmental impact.

The country is headed towards a significantly drier future. Every water use should be scrutinized. At least in California, taxing that crystalline bottled water would help regulate a product whose water footprint is, ironically, opaque.

Drinking bottled water “enables a bullshit, backwards vision for society.”

This is the most important point, raised by Alissa Walker at Gizmodo. Let me put it another way: In some of California’s most rural communities, residents are forced rely on bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing their teeth because of a long-standing legacy of groundwater contamination. These communities also tend to made up of immigrant farm workers on the lowest end of the income spectrum. The fact that they are forced to buy bottled water in order to survive is insupportable and wrong. Access to safe, clean water is a basic human right and, as Walker writes, “a goddamn technological triumph worth protecting.”

The longer Americans buy bottled water as if it’s a replacement or improvement to tap, and treat tap water as if it’s not worth drinking, the likelier it is those communities will remain marginalized, and their water supplies will remain threatened.

And so could everyone’s. In the NPR interview, Royte continues:

... if our political leaders continue to underfund and ignore the nation's water infrastructure, and the public continues to flee municipal supplies for private, these systems are going to degrade to the point where only people who can afford to buy good water, are going to have it.

We need to protect tap water as the public resource and human right that it is. Tax bottled water, use the money to upgrade our water systems, and change the country’s mindset.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.