Water Should Be Free

Please, someone explain to me why Reefill is a good idea.

Photo: Indigo Skies Photography/Flickr

Out of all of the problems that people try to solve via an app or something something Bluetooth something network AI, water — like, tap water, that comes from water fountains or the kitchen sink — does not need this treatment. Slate took a look at Reefill, an app that wants to provide clean, cold drinking water to break us of our bottled water addiction, for the low and mind-boggling price of $1.99 per month.

The Startup That Wants to Sell You a Subscription to New York Tap Water Explains Itself

One of the app’s creators, Jason Pessel, saw a need that he felt wasn’t being adequately met: “Living in Manhattan, there’s no place to get a drink of water.” The author of the Slate piece notes that this is not a complaint he’s ever heard in New York, and as a resident of this city, I agree. There are water fountains and bathrooms with fully functioning sinks, all of which provide free tap water that, by my standards (low, I guess?), are fine.

The Reefill is a unit that lives in a cafe. You use the app to locate a cafe near you that has one of these things and then activate the machine via Bluetooth. Then you refill your water bottle — Reefill provides subscribers with a collapsible, reusable water bottle that folds up — and go about your day. Problem solved.

If you’re already drinking tap water out of your water bottle that you dutifully refill using the sink or whatever, fantastic. Reefill is not for you. Reefill is for the people who are spending money on bottled water and then disposing of all that plastic.

The real targets are the New Yorkers who have helped send U.S. spending on bottled water north of $12 billion a year. In 2016, for the first time, Americans bought more bottled water by volume than soda.

That’s why, despite its founders’ proclivity for tap water, Reefill stations run the water they pipe from the city’s system through several more filters. It’s tap water in a suit.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that Reefill’s founders are trying to charge for a public utility, let’s address the logistics first. The Reefill unit lives on the counter of a coffeeshop and is meant in part to help baristas who would otherwise have to constantly refill a sweating water pitcher for their patrons. Reefill also depends on Bluetooth, which works most of the time, but you know how technology can be! Tetchy, unpredictable, prone to, uh, not working. Then what?

What happens if you walk into your local Reefill station, try to connect to the app so you can Reefill your bottle with tasty, cold, filtered New York City tap water, only to discover that it’s not working? Do you ask the barista for help? Will the baristas become resentful of the machine perched at the end of the counter, because it takes time out of their day to troubleshoot? Does the Reefill come with its own tech support? Will there be a person in each coffeeshop stationed next to the Reefill so they can help address any questions you might have or reboot the thing? Will you inevitably become angry that Reefill is not working to Reefill your water bottle and will you just buy a bottle of seltzer or whatever at the bodega next door and be on your way?

Hmm. Then there’s this.

During the heyday of municipal water systems, bottled water was considered a low-class product for the unplumbed. But then came bottled water marketing, declining faith in government, and environmental paranoia.

All that led to fewer public water fountains, which in turn led to fewer Americans trusting public water fountains. Incredibly, installing a new water fountain can cost New York City into the six figures; installing a Reefill, which piggybacks on the sunk costs of a store, costs a few thousand dollars.

Okay, so technically a Reefill is cheaper than installing new water fountains, but a Reefill is only useful if you have a smartphone and frequent cafes. It’s not useful for people who do need free water, like those who cannot afford it. But! Lucky for you, Reefill user, you’’re saving SOOOO MUCH MONEY.

Add bottled water to lattes, avocado toast and buying lunch as the reason you will never own a home, I guess!

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