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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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.