The Competitive Enterprise Institute is mightily upset about a report by the Environmental Working Group(EWG) that points out what should be obvious: buying bottled water is usually a giant waste of money particularly because what's in the bottle could very well be just plain old tap water. Meanwhile, bottled water is a giant source of profit to Coca Cola, Pepsi and other members of the industry.
The folks at the Washington D.C.-based booster of corporate America (CEI) is trying to counter criticism of bottled water by suggesting that consumers' worst enemy is --shriek!--the Nanny State! You know, those government Nannies in their frumpy clothes, their lips tight in disapproval, who don't want you to have choices, choices, choices! In this case, the choice of drinking bottled water while leaving to the public at large the cost of disposing of the container and ignoring the oil used in making all that plastic and its impact on global warming. The CEI has even created a special website just to fight efforts to shrink use of bottled water.
Here's the bottom line from the EWG: "With bottled water, you don't know what you're getting." Laboratory tests found Walmart's Sam's Club bottled water contains traces of disinfection, a sign that it is simply bottled tap water. Other brands sampled contained traces of contaminants at levels higher than the bottled water industry's own purity standards allow.
"Given the industry's refusal to make available data to support their claims of superiority, consumer confidence in the purity of bottled water is simply not justified," the report continues.
Of course, what's given the bottlers and the CEI that sinking feeling is that the growth in sales of bottled water is slowing. Reports like this from EWG, combined with growing public concerns about the environmental damage from the bottles, surely won't help to revive industry growth. In 2002, consumers spent $11 billion on bottled water, and sales grew 12 percent. This year, the increase is expected to be under 2.5%. Uh, oh.
There's even an effort by some universities to ban bottled water sales on campus as a green initiative. That has particularly disturbed the folks at CEI, bothering their rest with Nanny Nightmares.
Angela Logomasini is the CEI's spokesperson on this subject, and she criticized the EWG report as "junk science" and misleading. She's a Ph.D, a press release points out, but the CEI's web site says her advanced degree is in political science not biology or chemistry. I gave her a call to ask her to explain her assessment of the report, and it turned out she had no criticism of the laboratory findings, just the conclusion that bottled water is no better than tap.
She asserts that even though some bottled water is drawn right from municipal supplies that it's still better because it is filtered further and thus may taste better.
Her political background is more to the point of the CEI's criticisms. Calling a ban on bottled water sales on campuses "ridiculous," she asserts, "We're against the Nanny state. It's a right for people to live in a free society and engage in voluntary exchange, free trade."
What I've always loved about this view of capitalism--and I have a background in economics--is that free enterprise champions never want to pay the real price of so-called free trade.
How about a tax or at least a deposit on water bottles to cover the costs of disposing of the bottles? Nope. In fact, Logomasini said CEI would like to do away with all bottle deposits.
What about a labeling requirement that would tell consumers the source of bottled water, so you'd know, for example, that you were paying $1.50 for 12 ounces of some municipality's public water supply? Nah. Most brands, she asserts, have a phone # on the label where you can get such information.
The CEI's bottom line is that an unfettered market is always the answer.
Here's my bottom line: Buy genuinely reusable water bottles and refill them. A good source is REI, a retailing cooperative with a strong sense of responsibility to the public and the environment. With all the money you save, you can buy something really worthwhile in a bottle to celebrate your newfound thrift. Champagne anyone?