"Ultimate convenience"

by Rob Horning

27 May 2007


For a long time I tried to not drink bottled water on principle, the principle being not merely habitual cheapskatery but that I didn’t want to contribute to the erosion of safety standards of tap water—if the political constituencies that matter all become de rigeur bottled water drinkers, then the will to ensure that the government protects water supplies weakens, and waterborne diseases among those too poor to secure bottled water increases. But the insanity of the packaging waste brought on by people requiring a special container for every single serving of water is brought home in an article in the NYT Magazine by Jon Mooallem, who has written several illuminating articles about the food-packaging industry and its implications. The article mainly looks at the bottled water industry’s attempts to remain exempt from laws that tack on bottle deposits, as on beer and soda. Grocers, who have to deal with the infrastructure of collecting and repaying deposits, are the primary opponents of this arrangement; they protest the hassle of having to cope with storing all the bottles and the chaos the redemption process forces them to try to manage. Bottle-deposit laws encourage the development of a scavenger class, who might turn up in your alley rummaging through your garbage and then can be found pushing their battered shopping carts full of empties to the Trade Fair for cashing in. Proponents of bottle deposits seem to think they provide useful incentives to the indigent; instead of begging or menacing people, they can be doing something useful for society. But it also incentivizes waste in the more fortunate, who can rationalize littering (and the unnecessary disposable-single-serving consumption it stems from) with the classic patronizing line of how it gives some bum a job to pick up after them.

The problem with deposit laws is they don’t punish the wastrels, namely the people who can’t be troubled to refill a Nalgene bottle but instead burn through plastic throwaways instead. I was staggered by the following quotes from a market researcher, which depressingly enough, seem right on:

Michelle Barry of the market research firm the Hartman Group told me, “Water is not really critically considered” — not even the object itself, it seems. “We believe bottled water has become less about the physical act of hydration and more about being a companion to people,” she said. “They like to walk around with it and hold it.” Increasingly, the typical consumer sips out of a bottle of water “to mark time.” “It’s like their bangie,” Barry added, meaning a security blanket. Or rather, each bottle of water is one in a readily available cast of interchangeable security blankets that we can capriciously acquire and toss throughout the day.
Several industry people told me that water’s most exciting growth is now in sales of large multipacks or flats of single-serving bottles — stockpiles that we keep in our pantries or garages and grab a few bottles from on our way out the door. The obvious question then is, why not fill up a reusable bottle from the tap and take that with us. “If you’re on the go, and you’re buying something to consume on the go,” Barry told me, “that assumes you don’t have the time for preparation before you go. You need that ultimate convenience.”

A tax on bottles needs to be high enough to inconvenience such people. Individuals tend to default to the more convenient option unless they are given a reason to think about what they are about to do, every time they do it. It’s not always an active choice indicative of a strong preference—convenience lures are grounded in the human tendency to want to evade choices, after all. Who wants to be part of the heedless, littering masses? It seems like a little “libertarian paternalism” might help in this instance, encouraging people through slight institutional tweaks to make the choice they would prefer to make and would be proud of rather than make the destructive and embarrassing choice out of laziness and habit, to the benefit of multinational manufactures of plastic and the petroleum companies that supply the raw materials.

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