I’ve often blogged about the law of unintended consequences—solving what some perceive to be a problem only to create another unintended problem. It happens a lot in this world rife with rules and regulations.
A Wall Street Journal editor gave a good example in the Aug. 25, 2017, editorial pages. In “The Park Service’s Botched Bottle Ban," the editorial notes that during the Obama era, a policy was put in place to ban the sale of bottled water in our national parks in order to solve the problem of plastic litter.
People are drinking more water than almost every other beverage, “surpassing soda” this year, the WSJ editorial noted. “In a 2011 memo on sustainability, the National Park Service claimed that by reducing or prohibiting water sales and increasing its offerings of reusable bottles, it could introduce visitors to green products and the concept of environmentally responsible purchasing . . . .”
As a result of that policy, more than 20 sites, “including the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, banned bottled water sales, and the park service spent millions on water fountains and filling stations.” Problem solved, right?
Well, as the WSJ aptly noted, consumers have a way of “thwarting” even the best thought-out solutions by the nanny state to a perceived problem. After all, it isn’t just water that comes in plastic bottles—soda and sports drinks also come in plastic bottles. So guess what consumers switched to when bottled water was no longer available for purchase?
The WSJ editorial pointed to a study of what happened when the University of Vermont banned water in 2013. “Researchers found that bottled beverage consumption did not decrease—and students quenched their thirst with sugary beverages instead of water.”
Speaking of the environmentally friendly aspects of this whole situation, the WSJ editorial said, “Carbonated beverages exert more pressure than water, requiring heavier bottles that use more plastic.”
The University of Washington’s Seattle campus had considered a bottled water ban; however, after looking at findings “from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s social cost of carbon,” UW Seattle “concluded that ‘although it is widely believed that these bans are important for environmental reasons,’ any benefits were miniscule. This whole idea of banning bottled water sales in our national parks turned out “to be a lesson in the law of unintended consequences.”
There are always those who will argue the facts with me, but I still say that plastic litter in the environment is a “people” problem, not a plastic problem. Until people realize the value to both the environment and to the plastics industry of recycling plastic bottles, there will always be a litter problem.
Thanks to the Trump administration ending the Obama-era ban on the sale of bottled water, vacationers can now buy bottled water again. Just remember, when you visit our national parks, take your empty water bottles to a recycling bin or reuse them at one of the many new refilling stations paid for by your tax dollars.