Plastic Water Bottles Are a Secret Anti-Poverty Program

Scott Lucas | August 23, 2013 | Story Politics

For years, San Francisco has been making steady efforts to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. As part of that ongoing attempt, the Examiner reported today that Supervisor David Chiu would be introducing legislation "to ban vendors on city property and in government buildings from selling plastic water bottles, except those at San Francisco International Airport and sporting events; ban new food trucks from selling them; and ban them at events such as street festivals with more than 1,000 attendees."

Though the environmentalist case against plastic water bottles is pretty much open and shut, there's another surprising angle to consider. Plastic water bottle consumption has a big impact as an anti-poverty measure. Many of us have seen folks at parks collecting water bottles or seen people retrieving them from curbside recycling.

How much, exactly? Glad you asked. According to statistics from the International Bottled Water Association, in 2012 the average American consumed 167 plastic bottles. That's about one every other day per person. Though the SF numbers are probably lower, that gives us a pretty good baseline to work from. The estimate for San Francisco's population in 2012 from the US Census was 825,863. But that doesn't count all the tourists and workers who are here—and drinking water—during the day. According to San Francisco Travel, the average day sees an additional 131,128 tourists. There's another 265,000 workers who come in each weekday, according to the American Community Survey. All told, that's in the neighborhood of 1,222,000 people here on the average day. Per year, they will be expected to consume 204,074,000 bottles of water. (Per day, that's about 559,106 bottles of water.)

Given a five cent rebate per bottle, that's just over $10 million dollars of value per year in plastic water bottles alone. (Assuming, of course, that every bottle gets redeemed, which is unrealistic.) By way of comparison, the outlay for the Human Services Agency in 2012 was $703 million, of which $130 million went out in aid payments. Were plastic water bottles to be totally eliminated, it would represent something like a 2% decrease in anti-poverty spending. So it's not much, but it's not a negligible drop in the recycling bucket either.

All in all, our back of the envelope calculations (which don't even include soda cans!) suggest that eliminating plastic water bottle use in the city would have the potential to eliminate a surprisingly large amount of anti-poverty cash. Something to think about while you are sipping your Hetch Hetchy tap water at work today.

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