Ecology vs Economy

I’ve never understood why a bottle of seltzer at the supermarket costs as much as a bottle of Coke.

Back when I was a kid there was a ice cream palace called Jahn’s that had on its beverage menu something called a “2-Cent Plain.” It was called that because it cost US $0.02, the traditional price for a glass of seltzer. Seltzer is just water shot through with CO2—it’s made at a soda fountain by making a soda without the expensive ingredient, the syrup. In those days, bars didn’t even charge for seltzer, any more than they charged for plain water.

There’s a company that has a putative solution to the outrageous price of seltzer. And its products should be good for the environment as well. But, like a number of other ideas that are good for the planet, their economics prove dubious. I wouldn’t have thought that would be true of something as simple as seltzer, but it is.

A company called Soda Stream makes a line of devices that let you shoot CO2 into water. That ought to be good for the planet, because you’re using the same glass bottle over and over, instead throwing out a plastic bottle (even recycling uses energy for transportation, water, etc.) and you’re bringing into your home just CO2 cartridges and a small package of flavorings, instead of shipping water all around the planet.

But let’s look at the finances of it. According to the company, which I spoke with last night at an technology showcase called Pepcom, a liter of seltzer uses about 25 cents’ worth of CO2, at the going rate for the cartridges. And the cheapest Soda Stream machine goes for about $80. My local supermarket sells seltzer for about $0.50 a liter. You’d have to make 240 liters of Soda Stream soda just to break even. The most expensive machine, which the company is launching this week, is $200. That's a 600-liter break-even point.

For flavored seltzer, you’ll never break even. Soda Stream says it takes about $0.50 worth of flavoring to make flavored seltzer or soda. The combined cost of $0.75 for CO2 plus flavoring is even higher than the cheap seltzers in the supermarket, which cost no more than the plain seltzer.

There’s not much in the way of savings for regular soda as well. Coke can usually be found for about the same 75 cents per liter as Soda Stream. Store brand cola is even cheaper. I didn’t taste the Soda Stream soda last night, but I did try the flavored seltzer, and it wasn’t even as good as Vintage, the cheap brand in supermarkets around here. (To be sure, New York City is a very seltzer-friendly town. Your supermarket’s holdings may vary in both price and taste.)

To be sure, with the Soda Stream machine, you select your own level of carbonation, a very nice feature. Pump once on the handle for petite Perrier-like bubbles, up to four hits on the pump for very large bubbles. And the ecological correctness of the product is certainly a plus. But what we really need are ecologically sensible products that also make economic sense.

That problem showed itself all the more in another product at the Pepcom event. A company called The Green Revolution retrofits exercise bicycles to recapture the energy you generate peddling. Makes sense, right? The problem is, you don’t generate a huge amount of energy and the retrofit costs around $1000 per bike. That might take 20 years to recoup, at current energy prices, and that assumes the bike is still working 20 years from now. The company is making sales, but mainly because of the eco-cachet, not the eco-nomics.

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