From November 18 to November 21, Harvard students have the opportunity to vote on an Undergraduate Council referendum that seeks to ban the sale of plastic water bottles on campus and increase the availability of tap water sources such as filling stations. Proponents of the proposal have hailed it as commonsense measure, claiming the ban would represent a commitment to protecting the environment. Banning plastic water bottles, which are inarguably harmful to the environment, would have important symbolic implications, but the very real negative consequences of implementing such a ban far outweigh the symbolic victory that would come with its passage. Instead of approving this misguided proposal, we should look for more efficient ways to tackle this problem.
The environmental damage caused by disposing plastic water bottles is a textbook case of a negative externality. The ban proposes to reduce the damage of this externality by limiting the choice of the consumers. Limiting consumer choice, however, is extremely problematic on an economic level and often brings with it a number of unintended consequences.
At the University of Vermont, which recently banned the sale of water bottles, students bought over 350,000 bottles of water yearly before the ban. It is reasonable to project that the sales revenues lost from banning water bottles would not be insignificant. This fall in revenues could lead to either lower pay or fewer student-employees being hired at student-run establishments that sell water bottles, such as Lamont Café. Employment opportunities represent a valuable part of Harvard financial aid packages, and limiting sales at Harvard establishments hinders Harvard’s ability to pay its students fair wages.
Furthermore, when consumers are no longer able to purchase a preferred good, they often choose to purchase a substitutable, or similar, good. In this case, that means that students might purchase bottled sodas in place of the banned bottled water. Few would argue that this is the ideal outcome. In addition to causing the same environmental harm as bottled water, bottled soda is also a danger to students’ health.
Students who do not switch to soda might instead buy bottled water from other stores in Harvard Square. Because these alternate purchasing locations are not as convenient as on-campus locations, students might choose to buy bottled water in bulk so as to limit the time they spend buying water. Because of this, students who previously consumed bottled water infrequently and only out of necessity might actually consume more of it, since they would have bulk quantities on hand.
Fortunately, there is an alternate option for reducing Harvard’s consumption of bottled water that avoids or lessens all of the aforementioned consequences: incentivizing consumer behavior. The second portion of the proposed referendum, the building of more tap water fill stations, is a great example of a proposal that incentivizes behavior. Because tap water is free and bottled water expensive, students should naturally consume less bottled water and use the free tap water instead once it is made more accessible through the fill stations.
Another way to incentivize students to purchase few water bottles would be to impose a University tax on bottled water. By raising the price students must pay for bottled water, the tax would cause students to purchase less water, reducing the detrimental environmental impact of the bottles. Furthermore, the University could then use some of the tax revenues to supplement employee pay to ensure that the tax does not result in lower salaries for student-employees. The remaining tax revenues could then be used to fund other environmental initiatives, including the building of more filling stations. Coupling a bottled water tax with a program to increase tap water accessibility would thus present a much more efficient solution to reducing Harvard’s environmental impact than would an outright ban on bottled water.
Aside from its direct inefficiencies, the proposed ban also creates problems for the image of environmentalism. Because banning bottled water represents an encroachment on individual choice and consumer freedom, such a policy invites criticism on an ideological level. As I have previously stated, there is considerable danger in taking a radical tact on an issue that could be more effectively solved by a moderate approach. An outright ban of water bottles offers easy fodder for conservative pundits bent on opposing the cause of environmentalism, making it easy for such pundits to label proponents of this policy as radicals who are willing to overlook any and all individual freedoms in order to achieve their aims. Inviting these kinds of attacks on environmentalism is ultimately harmful to the larger goal of convincing more people to recognize the necessity of environmental consciousness. An incentive-based approach would avoid these sorts of attacks by preserving the choice of the consumer, allowing the progress of environmentalism to go unhindered.
Because the current proposal does not solve the issue at hand in an efficient and responsible manner, we should vote “no” as an affirmation that we can devise a better solution.
Carson J. Scott ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.