Acton Commentary

Ban the Bottle?


In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors met to discuss a trendy new legislative push: taxation and regulation of bottled water. Bottled water has become a target for many local governments, as environmental groups and some churches supporting bottled water regulation argue that the plastic is clogging landfills. The ban is catching on across the country:

  • Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco signed an executive order banning the use of city funds for purchasing water bottles.
  • Mayor Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City ordered city firefighters to stop bringing bottled refreshments with them in fire trucks. Instead each firefighter has been issued a metal ten-ounce "refillable container." As a result, delivery teams must now be sent to the scenes of fires to bring the emergency workers refills.
  • The City Council of New York has shifted to tap water instead of bottled water.
  • Other cities including Orlando, Seattle, and Ann Arbor have followed suit in banning bottled water purchases with city funding.

The Conference of Mayors decided that, due to the landfill clutter, carbon dioxide emissions from bottle production, lack of government control over bottled water standards and the already immense government investment in municipal water systems, it is going to start to "phase out, where feasible, government use of bottled water and promote the importance of municipal water."

The mayors have also raised economic objections to bottled water: they say bottled water costs "more than an equivalent volume of gasoline." If public officials are genuinely looking for ways to balance government budgets, that's commendable. But some mayors say that it is wrong for anyone to make a profit from the sale of water, which is profiting from the sufferings of others who do not have clean, safe water. Bottled water is, according to this view, a luxury, and therefore ought to be taxable except in times where bottled water is an absolute necessity.

In addition, a number of religious organizations have raised philosophical and theological arguments against the use of bottled water. The National Council of Churches makes a typical case based on faith:

  • Water is "a human right, and not a commodity to be bought and sold for profit."
  • Clean and safe water is "a free gift from God."
  • The environment, of which we are called to be good stewards, is hurt by every plastic bottle that we do not recycle.
  • Water is a necessity for human life, and necessities should not be sold for profit.

These arguments appeal to the consumer's heart and wallet. The sentiment seems to be: "I have cheap water available, which I ignore, while the poor are dying; why am I wasting what I ought, as a Christian, to spend on them?" The problem, however, is that the arguments of those who would ban bottled water only seem to make sense until we actually think about the likely consequences of a ban.

A tax on bottled water does not eliminate demand for the bottles themselves. There are plenty of other, non-taxed bottled beverages, and bottled water often takes from their markets due to transferable demand; people often switch from soda to bottled water, avoiding obesity-fostering calories. This has even caused many sympathetic groups to protest what they see as the legislature not going far enough in the campaign against plastic bottles. A bottled water tax also creates a conflict with other taxes, such as occasional efforts to impose a "fast food" tax. A bottled water tax would likely encourage people to go back to drinking sodas. To be truly effective in reducing the demand for water bottles, the government would have to tax all beverages sold in plastic bottles.

The logic that dictates bottled water is always a taxable luxury is flawed. As even the tap-over-bottle groups will admit, there are situations where tap water is not available or not trustworthy, and in these cases bottled water is clearly a necessity. Everyone agrees that it is important that drinking water keep to high levels of safety and potability, and bottled water reliably maintains these standards as part of the market process, even when we cannot always trust tap water.

The theological and philosophical arguments behind a bottle ban are also wrong-headed. We are told that water is a necessity, and therefore a human right. But food and shelter are also necessities; why shouldn't these be "free" gifts?

We are told by Scripture to remember that all that we have has been given to us by God: "Or what hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?" (1 Cor 4:7). But we must also remember what God said to Adam: "with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life." (Gen 3:17).

Food and water, while necessary and given by God, are not free. To protest the "privatization" of water is to protest a more prudent and more effective way to market the same product. We have seen the unintended consequences that follow the nationalization of industries and we know that the removal of incentives does not create "plenty for all." Instead, we get lines and shortages, the very things cited as reasons to "end privatization." Although there may be good intentions behind the push to tax and regulate bottled water, such a ban would certainly do more harm than good.

Tom Sundaram and Noah Meek are public policy interns at the Acton Institute. Intern Robert Holmes also contributed to this piece.