Bottled water is big business in the United States. How big? Well, according to a report by the Beverage Marketing Corporation, U.S. consumers chugged 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water in 2008, representing nearly 29 percent of the liquid beverage market and exceeding sales of all other beverages except carbonated soft drinks.
You might expect ecoRI News to report on the outrageous environmental costs of depleted aquifers and plastic waste associated with the bottled water industry, or even the ridiculous retail markup on a product that most consider a human right, but this story is centered on the indubitable waste of taxpayer dollars on bottled water in Rhode Island.
In the past few years, sales of bottled water have declined slightly, but bottled water still remains the second largest selling pre-packaged beverage in the country. This recent dip in sales can be partially attributed to the decline of the economy and partially to increased awareness of the environmental costs of bottling this important resource. Nielsen Scantrack data, as of December 2011, estimated the average cost of a gallon of bottled water at $1.47. The same volume of water from the tap, at current U.S. average rates, costs 0.15 cents, or less than two-tenths of a penny.
According to information from the state’s open government portal, Rhode Island state agencies spent more than $110,000 in taxpayer dollars on bottled water in fiscal 2011. At the aforementioned average rate of $1.47 per gallon that amounts to slightly less than 75,000 gallons of bottled water.
The actual rate for public drinking water in Providence — where the largest percentage of government agencies are based — is about 0.46 cents a gallon. At that rate, 75,000 gallons of water would cost $345. At literally any rate, using tap water would have eliminated about 98 percent of that $110,000 bottled water expenditure.
These purchases seem to fly even further into the face of common sense given that as recently as 2009 Providence’s public drinking water was rated second best in the nation for taste and lack of contaminants by the Environmental Working Group.
In fact, given the state’s crumbling water infrastructure and the contamination of the public water supply by lead pipes and galvanic corrosion in some of the oldest pipes in the nation, any tax dollars spent on bottled water, rather than on improvements to our public drinking water systems, seem extravagant.
The General Assembly contracts with Coca-Cola to provide not only Dasani brand bottled water, which is simply filtered tap water, but soft drinks, as well. In fiscal 2011, the legislature spent more than $42,000 on Coke-brand beverages — about $18,000 of which was for glorified tap water and the remainder was spent on cans of soda laden with high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings.
The General Assembly, which is only in session for six months out of the year, also contracted with theCulligan water company and DS Waters for coolers and water amounting to more than $8,700, bringing the grand total of bottled water and cooler expenditures at the Statehouse to nearly $27,000.
Even if you don’t begrudge your tax dollars being spent on astronomical markups on a natural resource — or on your local senator and representative’s soft drink habits — there are companies in Rhode Island that could provide these overpriced products and services.
The Ocean State is home to two spring water bottlers — Crystal Spring in Middletown and Girard Spring in North Providence. Both have assured ecoRI News that they have the capacity to provide bottled water to every state agency at nearly the same cost as Poland Spring. The state even promotes an underutilized buy local campaign.
The General Assembly’s spending on soft drinks is even more mind boggling, considering that in 2004 the legislature saw fit to deem Yacht Club Soda as “Rhode Island’s Official Soda.”
While the General Assembly is freezing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), state lawmakers are downing plenty of out-of-state cola and marked-up bottled water. If the economy is forcing citizens to tighten their purse strings and forego raises, there’s no reason state government shouldn’t do the same. Plus, there are better ways — both environmentally and financially — to rehydrate lawmakers and staffers without buying them water in a throwaway plastic bottle with a massive carbon footprint.
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