Mitigating Stigma Associated with Recycled Water: Aquifer Recharge and Trophic Levels

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Department of Applied Economics and Statistics, University of Delaware, Newark, DE.
Stigmatization of water and food products can constrain markets and prevent the implementation of scientifically safe solutions to environmental problems, such as water scarcity. Recycled water can be a cost-effective, dependable, and safe solution to water shortages, however, consumers generally either require a large reduction in price to purchase and eat products made with recycled water or reject such products outright. If emerging agricultural technologies, such as recycled water are to be used to address growing water shortages worldwide, policymakers and industry stakeholders must identify effective strategies for mitigating stigma. Using a field experiment involving 314 adult participants, we test the effectiveness of two stigma-mitigating techniques that have not previously been explored. Our analysis suggests that passing recycled water through a natural barrier, such as an aquifer, removes the stigma consumers would otherwise attach to it. We also find that the trophic level an organism occupies in the food chain influences stigmatizing behavior. The greater the steps in the food chain between an organism and the use of recycled water, the less it is stigmatized. A plant crop used for food possesses the same qualities and contagions as the water with which it is irrigated but a food animal that eats that crop does not, or at least not to the same extent. These results have important implications for efforts to promote large-scale potable and non-potable recycled water projects and the use of recycled water in the agricultural industry.
Stigma, Recycled water, Aquifier recharge, Trophic levels