Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Banning bottled water: not the solution?

In the MacLean's article “Why ban bottled water?” (October 26, 2010) by Jacob Serebrin, Serebrin makes a number of claims regarding why we should not ban bottled water, especially at universities. He makes a number of arguments in favour of this position, however among these there is only one strong point, and the rest are relatively weak in the way they are presented.

Serebrin begins the article by claiming that he believes bottled water is bad for the environment and it is also expensive. He strengthens this with evidence by referring to the bottled water at Concordia University, where the bottled water is simply tap water taken from Montreal. He continues to explain that he would rather bring a reusable bottle and save money rather than buying bottled water. Serebrin is simply explaining his opinion about bottled water, and he begins with what I believe is a strong argument as to why we should ban bottled water.

Serebrin then begins to negate his opinion in order to come back to the original point his article is trying to make-- that we should not ban bottled water. But because he began with a strong argument as to why bottled water is bad, it makes it more difficult for him to convince the reader that bottled water should not be banned. I believe that it was a critical mistake to format the article this way.

Serebrin goes on to explain that there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding the long-term effects of banning bottled water. The ban has just begun, and so there is little evidence as to what effects will surface. I believe that this is a weak point in his argument. In referring to the 1992 Rio declaration, “Lack of complete scientific certainty will not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. Did Serebrin not previously mention that bottled water is bad for the environment? We know that the current effects related to not banning bottled water is negatively affecting the environment. It can therefore be argued that it is perhaps more suitable to try and solve the problem of bottled water by taking some sort of action that could result in less of a negative environmental impact, rather than continuing on the path of not banning it where we know that there is a negative effect. The bottom line here, in my opinion, is that the present effects of having bottled water are currently more serious than the potential future ones that banning bottled water could have. Serebrin's argument would be more effective if he could provide some sort of evidence as to how the effects of not banning bottled water would be worse than banning it. He seems to simply ignore the environmental problems that he mentioned in his introduction.

In response to a quote from a study done at the University of Winnipeg that said, “There is no evidence to suggest without bottled water, people will consume unhealthy beverages such as colas”, Serebrin replies, “Sure there's no evidence that they will. But there's no evidence that they won't.” This is a rather naive reply, and makes for an extremely weak response. Serebrin is saying that there is no evidence-- then how is he supposed to back up all his points? Even though I agree that the amount of other, less healthy beverages bought will most likely increase, this is simply speculation and does not seem like a strong enough argument to negate the negative environmental and financial effects that bottled water was shown to have in the opening paragraph of the article.

Serebrin then continues in trying to show examples where the banning of bottled water would cause problems by outlining the repercussions of an orientation event at a university where the students had to buy beer in reusable mugs, and at the end of the event the ground was littered with reusable mugs. I agree in the sense that an orientation event is not the place for reusable mugs. In an event of that kind, no one would want to have to carry the mug around with them afterwards. However, perhaps what Serebrin does not realize is that this argument has a flaw. If bottled water was not banned, then the ground would most likely be littered with empty plastic bottles rather than reusable mugs. How is that better? Serebrin needs to address that side of the argument and perhaps present a solution in order to make his argument stronger. The upside of the street littered with reusable mugs is that the mugs could possibly be cleaned and re-used. If bottled water had been sold, then the streets would have been littered with empty water bottles, which would not be cleaned and would really have no potential to be re-used. The plastic water bottles would have a far more negative impact on the environment and would also be more difficult to clean up.

Serebrin's strongest claim, which has good evidence to strengthen it, is when he shows credible research that professor Martin B. Hocking from the University of Victoria conducted. It shows how many times you have to re-use a reusable drinking container in order for it to have an impact on the environment. One would have to use it between 500 and 1000 times before it has less of an environmental impact than a disposable one. This is convincing evidence and works well towards Serebrin's argument, and he also makes that point that a lot of resources go into making a reusable bottle. However, the bottom line here, I believe, is that plastic bottles are bad for the environment and the reusable bottles have the possibility of being good for it.

The last paragraph of the article seems to make a bit of a desperate point, and Serebrin would have made a better argument if he had left his strongest point for last instead. It explains a bit of an extreme measure-- stating that we should ban everything that has plastic bottles if we ban plastic water bottles. Serebrin is using a slippery slope argument here. Essentially he is saying, “If we ban bottled water, we should ban everything with plastic bottles”. This does not make a large amount of sense. The banishment of plastic water bottles makes sense because they are the most consumed bottled drink, and they also have a simpler alternative (tap water is much more accessible, while you cannot really get soda or apple juice out of convenient taps). Bottled water is simply consumed more and produces more waste, which is why it is a heated environmental topic.

In conclusion, I believe that Serebrin has made only one strong point in his favour, while the others are unfortunately weakly displayed. The format of the article sets it up so that from the beginning he makes a strong point for the opposition, and this continues to overshadow his entire argument. One must also take into account that he is arguing from the minority standpoint: most people, due to the large amount of attention that environmental issues are gaining presently, would probably see bottled water as a bad thing.


Serebrin, Jacob. (2010) Why ban bottled water? MacLean's On Campus, 26 October 2010. Accessed November 10, 2010.

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