By Marina Renton
Bans on bottled water are sweeping the nation, driven by concerns about the environment. But, according to a new study, the bans might bring some unintended consequences, including increased consumption of sugary beverages without a reduction in plastic waste.
The study, out in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health, came from the University of Vermont, which instituted its own ban on the sale of bottled water in January 2013. Researchers found that more sugar-sweetened beverages were shipped to the campus following the ban — despite efforts to reduce the presence of unhealthy drinks — while the number of bottles shipped per person actually increased.
In 2008, the average American consumed 30 gallons of bottled water a year, or over 200 single-serve bottles. While no one can fault a preference for water over less healthy beverages, the plastic bottles are not environmentally friendly — about 2 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic commonly used in beverage containers, entered the waste stream in 2013, while far less, about 899 thousand tons, were recycled.
Recently, bottled water bans have been proposed in towns and on university campuses as a way of reducing plastic waste. In 2013, Concord became the first town in the country to ban the sale of plastic water bottles under 1 liter, and others have since followed suit. Colleges and universities around the country — including Brandeis, Emerson and Harvard — also have bans in place.
Before its ban was implemented, University of Vermont made an effort to increase the presence of healthy beverages on campus by enacting a 30 percent healthy beverage requirement, meaning that at least 30 percent of the drinks for sale on campus needed to fit certain criteria, said Dr. Rachel Johnson, a UVM professor of nutrition and co-author of the new study.
The rule took effect in August 2012, and it remained in place when the sale of bottled water stopped on campus in January 2013, according to the study, which tracked bottled beverage consumption over three semesters: first, as a baseline, before any new requirements took effect; second, the semester the healthy beverage requirement began; and finally, the semester that bottled water was removed from campus.
The researchers used beverage shipment data as a proxy for beverage consumption. The objective of the ban was to reduce plastic bottle waste, but in fact the number of bottles shipped per person increased. The per-capita number of calories, sugars and added sugars shipped in beverages increased as well.
“With the decline or the complete elimination of bottled water, we saw a significant increase in the number of sugary drinks that were shipped to campus as well as the number of sugar-free or diet beverages,” Johnson said, in an interview. “And so what happened was we didn’t see a decline in the total number of bottles shipped, and we saw a substantial, significant increase in the shipment of unhealthy beverages.”
And those unhealthy, sugary beverages contribute to obesity, Johnson said.
“They’re high in calories; they’re really nutrient-void other than calories…and there’s been some elegant research done that shows that people don’t compensate for the calories that they consume in liquids [the way] they do in solid food,” she said. In other words, the beverages don’t make you feel as full as you would if you consumed the same number of calories in solid food.
She added that the study results “really speak to the importance of evaluation” of interventions.
Of course, the study’s findings don’t mean that all plans to ban bottled water should be scrapped, and UVM doesn’t plan on going back to selling water in disposable bottles. It’s worth noting that student activists led the charge on the policy change, and the student government association gave almost unanimous support for the ban, said Richard Cate, vice president for finance and treasurer at UVM.
The study has led officials at UVM to put a plan in place to further encourage the use of reusable water bottles and limit the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. “Things like this seldom work out exactly as you want them in the first instance,” Cate said.
According to a statement from UVM, the university spent around $100,000 to set up 75 new or retrofitted filling stations for reusable water bottles at the time of the ban, including outside every dining facility. The goal was “to make water strategically available,” Cate said, “but what we’ve determined is that, if the water is not sitting right there beside the other beverages, the choice may not be to step outside the dining hall door into the hallway to get the water.”
“We really need to make water an easy choice, a convenient choice,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to sell all other bottled beverages other than water, you’ve got to make water easy to access and convenient for people.”
In addition, to make water more convenient, UVM has made free, filtered water available alongside the other beverages, along with free cups. It has also established a stricter healthy beverage requirement, where 50 percent of beverages sold on campus must have 40 calories or fewer per eight-ounce serving, according to the statement. Finally, the university will launch a public education campaign to encourage students to choose healthier beverages and promote sustainability by using reusable water bottles.
“The university is committed to tracking this going forward,” Johnson said. “One of the limitations of our study was that we only had those three semesters, so I think it is really important to look at this in the future.”
“We know other campuses looked at us when there was a public discussion about our ban on water,” Cate added. “We were applauded in many venues for what we were trying to do. I’m hopeful that those same campuses and others will look to the things that we’ve learned — if they’re thinking about having a bottled water ban, that they will implement some of the changes that we’re doing now in the first instance so that, again, there can be a learning experience in the education community.”