When activist groups recently held a “reverse tea party”—dumping bottled water into the Boston Harbor—their goal was not to dilute the harbor. Instead it was to dilute free enterprise by protesting “water privatization” and to secure taxpayer dollars to fix problems related to government-provided tap water.
In essence, the protesters seek the reverse of what the founders offered in their forward-thinking tea party, which fought government controls that impede human progress. And unlike the fight for liberty, this regressive agenda won’t do much to help anyone, as it is based on many fallacies.
First, the underlying idea of their campaign is fundamentally flawed. In particular, they maintain that making a profit on water is wrong because it somehow hurts communities around the nation where springs and aquifers provide the water. In reality, these operations bring wealth to those communities. For example, in Maine where activists have tried to stop bottling operations, Poland Spring currently employs over 800 people and brings in considerable tax revenue.
The company also spends a good deal of funds on charity for the community (about $2.5 million since 2000). In addition, the industry at large donates water during emergencies all around the nation, and they do lots of wildlife conservation on their properties.
Furthermore, these operations do not deplete community water supplies as the activists suggest. The aquifers, springs and other natural sources replenish via precipitation, a process called “recharging.” In fact, many have been operating sustainably for hundreds of years.
A study produced by Keith N. Eshleman, Ph.D. at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science reports that “withdrawals for bottled water production represent only 0.019% of the total fresh ground water withdrawals in the U.S.,” which is far less than what Mother Nature recharges.
The fact that people can “profit” by enjoying these renewable resources is a good thing. Accordingly, the goal of water supply management should not involve abandoning the marketplace. Instead, water resources can be managed sustainably and profitably via a marketplace system of property rights.
The truth is many water shortages result because of the absence of markets. In that case, governments mismanage resources in a way that often involves subsidies mostly to large, politically organized users—particularly agriculture.
No one should be getting a free-ride or free water. A system of property rights can be employed to enhance stewardship and expand the benefits to the communities and those who enjoy the water, either in a bottle or from a tap.
The anti-bottled water crowd also suggests that municipal tap water problems could be solved if we didn’t have private water. Yet the opposite is true. Government mismanagement has contributed to degradation of tap water infrastructure, which is a real problem.
The federal government forces localities to spend limited precious resources to whittle down inconsequential trace levels of certain chemicals in our tap water. These mandates greatly reduce funds to address much bigger, serious infrastructure problems associated with tap water.
The solution is not more government. It lies in more flexible standards and more private enterprise. Privatization could bring in the financial resources needed for upgrades. Unfortunately, local governments outlawed private provision of tap water many decades ago when infrastructure of piped water was first under development.
The activists offer a host of other fallacious arguments to sway the public against bottled water. Key among their complaints is the idea that privately provided bottled water represents a uniquely serious solid waste disposal problem. Yet many times, when people choose bottled water, they simply choose it over other bottled beverages that contain sugar or caffeine. In these cases, the number of bottles heading to a landfill is not increased.
In any case, bottled water containers do no pose a unique management issue and are tiny fraction of the solid waste stream. Single-serving plastic water bottles amount to just 0.3 percent of the nation’s landfill waste. Like other products, they are managed in a safe and efficient matter, some recycled and some landfilled.
The 5-gallon bottles used in water coolers are reused 30 to 50 times over and then recycled at rates approaching 100 percent. They have nearly no impact on landfill waste, yet activists want to ban them too!
It’s a long road back to fixing the problems caused by government mismanagement. Rather than undermine liberty, we should employ the forward thinking of our forefathers whose advocacy for freedom understands the value of human creativity and achievement.