San Francisco International Airport has banned the sale of single-use plastic water bottles effective August 20, 2019. While well-intentioned, the policy unnecessarily penalizes water drinkers while overlooking a better pro-environmental alternative.
I am trying to approach this issue from a pragmatic perspective. The point is not to demonize the airport for trying to be good stewards of the environment. Whether on the left, right or anywhere in between, everyone should want to conserve and be good stewards of the environment. So I’m with SFO when it comes to the ultimate goal: creating a cleaner and more sustainable world. We all should be.
But I deeply question whether banning water bottles is a way to advance that goal. I’ll give you an analogy.
California “banned” single-use plastic bags in 2016. Now, grocery stores will sell you a plastic bag (just a tad thicker, but still essentially single use) for 10 cents. I’m in San Diego this weekend and noticed that the streets around the grocery store were littered with these bags. So now instead of thin plastic bags harming baby seals, thick plastic bags will harm baby seals even more. I’m not even being facetious. The plastic bag ban constituted a wealth transfer from consumers to grocery stores, penalizing consumers for what is at most a token gesture to the environment. The problem persists. 10 cents is not a sufficient deterrent. Paper bags also pollute. Check out this NPR report.
Returning to the water bottle ban at SFO, we face a similar dilemma. As One Mile at a Time also notes,
- Why is water targeted and not all plastic bottles? Won’t this encourage more soda consumption?
- Why are flavored waters exempted from the new ban?
- Will there not be a whole lot of broken glass if glass water bottles become the new norm?
- What are the environmental ramifications of producing and transporting glass bottles versus plastic bottles?
So what then? What can an airport do that wants to virtue signal its support for the environment in a place that depends upon pollution (airplanes) to survive? (Now I’m being facetious)
The Solution: Tax It More
I am against most bans and bottled water is one of them. The solution is to tax it, not ban it.
Why is it that the CRV (California Redemption Value) on water bottles is only five cents? This is a deposit levied at time of purchase. Why not raise that to a meaningful level to discourage behavior, like the tax on cigarettes? If these deposits are recast as non-refundable carbon offsets, people could still drink water in the manner in which they choose with a more positive environmental impact. Put a 25 cent tax on each bottle to be reused for cleaning the environmental and you will still have people buying a lot of water. But that will also move people to voluntarily bring their own bottles and/or use airport drinking fountains. Meanwhile, continue to invest in technology and education that will render plastic bottles useless by customer choice, not government fiat.
I’ve never bought a water bottle at an airport before, primarily because it is obscene to pay upwards of $3 for a bottle of water (and I have lounge access generally). If San Francisco deems plastic such a critical threat, why not tax all plastic bottles, evening the water versus soda playing field, and funding actual environmental stewardship, not token efforts instituted for self-congratulations?
What do you think about the plastic water bottle ban at SFO?