Water Bottles, Water Bottles Everywhere
It's time to eliminate the bottle-tax exemption for non-carbonated beverages; and while we're at it, it's probably time to up that deposit to a dime
While New York City has terrific drinking water, many of us still buy and drink bottled water. Some resourceful types carry around reusable containers and fill them with tap water, but many of us buy new bottles water at the store, often once a day or more. My colleague Eleanor Sterling, the Director of Graduate Studies for Columbia’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology and the Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, is the curator of a wonderful exhibit at the Museum called, “Water: H20 = Life." According to the bottled-water facts and figures presented in that exhibit:
Worldwide, 2.7 million tons of plastic are used each year to make water bottles, but in the U.S., less than 20 percent of these bottles are recycled.
The total estimated energy needed to make, transport, and dispose of one bottle of water is equivalent to filling the same bottle one-quarter full of oil.
An estimated 40 percent of bottled water sold in the U.S. is just filtered tap water.
Today, consumers worldwide spend as much as 100 billion U.S. dollars on bottled water.
Of course, it wouldn’t be so bad if the bottles didn’t end up in the waste stream and were instead reused or at least recycled. Unfortunately, in New York State, we only pay a nickel deposit on bottles that contain carbonated beverages. Water, juice and sports drinks are exempt. It must be something in the bubbles that makes requires the deposit?
The New York State Returnable Container Act, also known as the "Bottle Bill", has been a tremendous success. Over the last 25 years it has achieved significant impacts to create a cleaner and healthier New York. The Bottle Bill has: reduced roadside litter by 70%; recycled 90 billion containers, equal to 6 million tons of materials, at no cost to local governments; saved more than 52 million barrels of oil; and eliminated 200,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses each year.
However, changes in the beverage market over the last three decades have limited the success of the Bottle Bill. When the Bottle Bill was passed in 1982 non-carbonated drinks like iced teas, sport drinks and bottled water made up on a small fraction of the beverage market. Today, these drinks make up more than 25% of the market. If the Bottle Bill is expanded to include non-carbonated drinks, it can: recycle an additional 90,000 tons of materials every year at no cost to local governments; save another 1 million barrels of oil annually; and eliminate 80,000 tons per year of greenhouse gasses.
This leads to another question worth asking: Why is the deposit only a nickel? At a minimum we should raise the deposit to make up for lost value due to inflation. We started collecting deposits in 1982. A nickel in 1982 would be worth 11 cents today. We also all know that even at a dime, many people would still through their bottles in the trash. Why not raise the deposit to at least a quarter—if not a dollar. At a dollar or even a quarter, more people would take the trouble to sort the bottle from other trash and redeem the deposit.
New York is a complicated place to live and people consider conveniences like bottled water a way to simplify things. For some people, carrying around a reusable water container is just one more thing to remember and one more thing to lose. It’s a waste of effort to oppose convenience. All I’m saying is that people should be made to pay for that convenience. The full cost of that water should be added to the price of water. Not just the price to bottle the water and ship it to you—but the cost of its carbon foot print and its disposal. Unredeemed deposits should be used to pay for waste disposal and for projects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Bottles that are redeemed should be reused or recycled.
We are a species that leaves a mark on this planet—we can’t help but have an effect on the environment. I don’t think it’s realistic to think we can eliminate that impact. Instead, we should look at the things we do, and develop systems that help minimize damage. If we are going to drink bottled water, we should make sure that the bottles are not wasted. We should also try to keep the distance that we ship the bottles to a minimum. Some environmentalists think we should abandon the global economy, end rampant consumerism and get back to the land.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau World Pop Clock Projection there were 6,659,420,098 people on the planet last weekend. I think it’s a little late, and there are just too many of us, to be getting back to the land. So, let’s work to make our cities sustainable. With any luck, we’ll do a better job of it and manage to survive.
I am grateful for the research assistance of Sara Schonhardt, Master of International Affairs student, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.