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Editorial: Bottles, bottles everywhere

  • January 6, 2008 - 4:09 PM

The flood of bottled water has reached a point where Americans now consume more of it than of any other beverage, except soft drinks, and more than all alcoholic beverages combined.

In response comes a backlash against bottled water that has reached new force within the last year. In June, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak helped spearhead a U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution to study the impact on municipal waste of bottled water, whose manifold sins make it a prime target for environmentalists:

• Bottled water is wasteful. The billions of plastic containers it comes in require 1.5 billion gallons of oil a year to manufacture. The plastic-bottle detritus takes up space in landfills and pollutes our streets and waterways.

• Bottled water is unnecessary. Studies show that city tap water around the country tastes as good and has tighter safety controls. Many of the largest brands of bottled water, including both Pepsi's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani, come from public reservoirs.

• Bottled water is expensive. Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gasoline or milk.

These are, at their heart, anti-consumption arguments. And a conservation ethic is a difficult thing to impose by moral suasion alone.

Bottled-water foes should take a lesson from the Toyota Prius. It wasn't exhortations from environmentalists that made hybrid vehicles a success. It was $3-a-gallon gas. Similarly, the harms of bottled water are best solved by moving economic levers to address what is, essentially, a market problem.

Much of bottled water's offensiveness rests in its plastic containers, a characteristic shared by the many more containers of soft drinks sold. Several states have taken a strong swipe at the container issue with bottle-deposit systems. They have significantly reduced waste by recovering 78 percent of eligible beverage containers, compared to 23 percent of containers in nondeposit states that emphasize recycling programs, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

Since statewide bottle-deposit systems first arrived 35 years ago, none has been repealed and three have been expanded to include plastic bottles. Business groups argue against the imposition of yet another mandate, and certainly businesses need to be compensated for costs they incur.

But if keeping bottles off our streets and out of our landfills were easy and free, we would be doing it already. A well-designed deposit program would pay for itself and ensure that the costs of recovering and recycling plastic bottles is borne by those who use them and profit from them.

In the absence of appropriate economic signals, exhortations to reduce consumption -- whether of bottled water or gasoline -- will have all the effectiveness of pushing against the tide.

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