A new study analyzing a bottled water ban at the University of Vermont (UVM) suggests that such policies are totally counterproductive, leading to an increase in the consumption of unhealthy drinks while also doing nothing to reduce the output of plastic bottle waste.
UVM became the first public college to ban bottled water at the outset of 2013, in a bold move the school touted as an opportunity to encourage the consumption of local water while cutting down on the number of plastic waste bottles. Besides banning water bottles, the school also spent over $100,000 constructing additional water fountains and promoting the consumption of tap water. Similar polices have been put in place at dozens of other schools around the country, though no study looked closely at the long-term effects until now.
The study, conducted by two UVM professors and straightforwardly titled “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” was published in July’s edition of the American Journal of Public Health, and is damning in its findings.
“Per capita shipments of bottles, calories, sugars, and added sugars increased significantly when bottled water was removed,” the study’s analysis says. “Shipments of healthy beverages declined significantly, whereas shipments of less healthy beverages increased significantly.”
Overall, the per capita number of sugary drinks UVM students consumed surged 25 percent after the ban’s implementation, as students replaced water with soda. Not only were students becoming less healthy, but they were also throwing out even more plastic bottles; the overall number of plastic bottles going through the campus waste stream grew by 8.5 percent per capita following the ban.
The study indicates that without bottled water, rather than filling their own bottles with tap water, students simply avoided water entirely and instead chose readily available sugary drinks.
Unwilling to take the study as a rebuke, UVM’s Office of Sustainability has pledged to redouble its efforts.
“The research findings underscore the importance of both making water a convenient choice inside dining outlets and continuing a strong public education program,” the office said. “Each year brings 3,000 new students who do not have the benefit of having participated in or observed the debate that went on before they arrived.”
To try and discourage the consumption of unhealthy drinks, the school will enact a new rule requiring 50 percent of all dining hall beverage options to have 40 calories or fewer per serving. It also plans to “roll out a public information campaign” promoting increased water consumption.