At a time when many of our state’s Latino communities cannot access clean water at home, lawmakers should be doing everything they can to solve this urgent problem. Unfortunately, a bill in Sacramento could create what is essentially a new beverage tax that would make it more expensive for these communities to purchase clean drinking water while they wait for the state to clean their tap water — a devastating result that could have negative ripple effects for small businesses.

California’s water quality challenges are nothing short of a crisis. As Governor Newsom noted in his 2019-2020 budget, 1 million residents lack access to safe drinking water. Since 2012, at least 6 million people have reportedly been served by water systems that have violated state standards. And an alarming study recently released by the Environmental Working Group found that contaminants in the state’s drinking water — from arsenic to even uranium and radium — could lead to more than 15,000 cancer cases over the course of a lifetime.

Residents and businesses here understandably fear what flows from their kitchen faucets. And these effects have been felt the most by our Latino communities. For instance, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that communities in the San Joaquin Valley with large Latino populations have disproportionately high amounts of nitrates in their water, which can cause serious health problems for pregnant women and their children. This has driven many Latinos to increasingly rely on bottled water — an added expense for these families that many cannot afford. 

But despite this, state lawmakers — led by San Francisco Assembly Member Phil Ting — are pushing for a new bill that could ultimately make bottled water more expensive for consumers and even lead to products being removed from store shelves altogether — hurting not only residents in need of clean water, but the local small business that rely on these revenues.

Ting’s bill (AB 792) calls for increasing the amount of recycled materials used in plastic beverage containers such as bottled water and sodas sold in stores. While reducing plastic waste is certainly a worthy goal, the bill’s mandate of 75 percent recycled material in bottles by 2030 is not realistic because of basic supply-and-demand challenges. Simply put, there is not enough recycled plastic available to meet the bill’s goals. In fact, one recent analysis that the current supply of recycled plastic is enough to meet just 6 percent of overall demand.

For California in particular, the state’s struggling recycling industry also presents a serious challenge for meeting AB 792’s unrealistic mandates. The supply of recycled plastic relies on plastic being recycled, but this bill comes at a time when hundreds of recycling centers across the state are going out of business and plastic recycling rates are at their lowest levels in a decade.

It does not take much imagination to picture the consequences of this bill. Higher costs for producers will be passed on to anyone buying a bottle of water or other drink — what amounts to a new beverage tax for consumers. Businesses will have to pay more to stock their shelves with water. And if beverage makers cannot comply with AB 792, it could eliminate products from store shelves — which would be disastrous for communities that rely on bottled water to drink in place of their unsafe tap water.

Reducing plastic waste is a goal everyone can agree on, but it should not come at the expense of communities that have struggled for decades with toxic drinking water. Rather than placing new cost burdens on our state’s consumers — which would hit communities of color and low-income residents the hardest — state lawmakers should focus on achievable ways they can increase recycling rates, such as additional investment in consumer education and community recycling programs. Now is not the time for making clean drinking water in California even harder to access.