Study shows bottled water ban leads to more high-calorie bottled beverage purchases
Banning the sale of bottled water on college campuses is posed as an eco-friendly mandate at Washington University and many other colleges nationwide. According to a new study, it may not only fail to decrease bottle consumption but also be detrimental to student health.
Elizabeth Berman and Rachel Johnson of the University of Vermont tracked water and other bottled beverage purchases both prior to and following UVM’s 2012 water bottle ban. Their results, published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health in July, sharply contrasted the hopes and expectations of environmentalists who stood behind the bans.
Washington University became the first American university to ban the sale of bottled water in 2009, following the passage of a Student Union Senate resolution against bottled water. It helped spark similar bans at over 50 schools nationwide, from Lake Tahoe Community College to Harvard University.
UVM took steps similar to Washington University in promoting its own ban: retrofitting water fountains with water bottle fill stations, educational campaigns and disbursement of free reusable bottles at campus events.
According to the study, per capita shipments of bottled beverages to campus increased significantly after the UVM ban, as did calories per bottle.
Some, including Dr. Harvey Friedman, an immunologist and an associate professor emeritus of biology at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, find the ban to be mostly symbolic, expressing aversion to prioritizing this symbolic environmental activism over more immediate and direct concerns of student health.
“This [decision] does not speak well for the intelligence and foresight of the faculty and administration of Washington University,” Friedman said.
Berman and Johnson wrote that with bottled water no longer an option, consumers at UVM still carried on their purchases of bottled beverages, adding to significant growth in purchases of both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks.
Many recent studies correlate higher intake of sugar-sweetened beverages with greater risk of obesity. More disturbingly, artificial sweeteners may negatively impact gut bacteria, alter metabolism and increase the likelihood of developing Type II diabetes.
Senior economics and math major Cody Kallen offered his own policy change suggestion.
“[Wash. U.] should lift the recyclable water bottle ban and sell them at a significant markup…It will reduce consumption of sugary and otherwise unhealthy beverages and bring in more money to the school using a market mechanism,” Kallen said.
“Using the free-market [prices] increases student welfare. If you offer more choices, even if they are expensive choices, the student body is unambiguously better off than under a product ban,” Kallen suggested.
However, Student Union resolution sponsor Kady McFadden, who graduated in 2010 and is now deputy director of the Illinois Sierra Club, offered her own opinion.
“I think it’s maybe a mistake to take one study and draft its conclusions across the country…but I’m not denying the fact that there may be changes, and I encourage the University to take a look at those and do research on it,” McFadden said.
The Washington University Office of Sustainability claims on its website that 386,000 bottles are eliminated annually under the current policy. The website does not state whether or not the statistic factors in parallel changes in soda and juice bottle consumption.
Student Life is currently in the process of acquiring University beverage purchase statistics for analysis.
Washington University Director of Nutrition Connie Diekman took part in a group that reviewed the ban several years ago.
“We certainly did discuss the education piece and the availability piece and how…we ensure that the message is [to] avoid the use of plastic bottles,” Diekman said.
Diekman acknowledges the difficulty in switching to a better bottle behavior, but believes financial and educational promotions will help ensure a healthy and environmentally beneficial ban.
“I’m sure at the beginning it is an adjustment for many of our incoming freshmen or transfer students,” Diekman admits.
“We’re not trying to police what people drink,” McFadden said, “but we’re trying to say that water’s readily available on campus: here’s a cup, here’s a free water bottle.”