Natural Resources

Bottled Water: The New Slippery Slope

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Author Elizabeth Royte dislikes bottled water at the conceptual level. Among her reasons is that corporatizing water sheds might limit access for people who can't afford private water:

[Interviewer]: Some local communities object to their spring water being bottled and sold elsewhere. But what makes extracting water from a spring one place and selling it somewhere else any different from extracting oil or wood for timber?

[Royte]: What gets people so upset is that water is necessary for life. We can live without timber and we can live without oil, but water is something that everyone has to have access to, and it has to be affordable for everyone. And once we go down this path of letting these corporations control it, there's no telling where it will go.

Royte's objection ignores the fact that water isn't currently free—paying for water in the form of city utilities is still paying for water. The gist of the argument seems to be that addressing one's monthly payment to a private company is somehow less pure than sending a check to your local government:

[Interviewer]: You found that it's not just environmentalists who are denouncing bottled water now; there are nuns doing so, too. Why?

[Royte]: They see water as something spiritual, as well as necessary for life, and they just object to it being turned into a crude commodity, something that someone can control, put in a bottle, sell, and that people can't afford.

Nuns, and other people of faith, feel a sense of responsibility for the poor and, increasingly, for the earth. Bottled water, if it indeed hurts tap water by taking away public support to improve and protect it, will disproportionately hurt those who can't afford to buy their water privately.

As opposed as she is to bottled water, Royte doesn't call for sin taxes:

[Royte]: It's hard to make a case for singling out bottled water, especially when there's no tax on drinking unhealthy beverages. I don't want to turn people away from drinking water.

As to the affordability of private tap water: if companies can make a profit off water that they've bottled and shipped across the globe and country by charging only a buck or two, how much more could tap water (which is local and only mildly filtered) possibly cost than it does now?

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward on the EPA's biggest advocate for private water.