Unintended Consequences – How Banning Bottled Water Can Backfire

Connector Spring 2016

Having announced Montreal will ban single-use plastic shopping bags as of Jan. 1, 2018, the city’s mayor, Denis Coderre, recently set his sights on his next target – erasing plastic water bottles from the city.

Banning bottled water could turn out to be a boon for the bottled sugar-water business instead, and potentially fill trash bins with even more plastic. Or at least that’s the finding of Rachel Johnson, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont who studied what happened at the University of Vermont after the school banned the sale of plastic water bottles on its campus in 2013.

Expectations were high. The school threw a “retirement party” for the plastic bottle, where it erected a sculpture made of 2,000 used plastic water bottles. Refillable water bottles were sold to students for $2 each, while the university retrofitted 68 water fountains with new spouts to fill them. It launched an education campaign to promote the new policy to students, and taste tests were held to see if students could tell the difference between bottled and tap water.

In the spring semester of 2013, following the ban, shipments of plastic bottles to eight campus locations increased to an average of 26 per student from 24 during the same semester the year before, when bottled water was still available. Rather than line up at the new water fountains with their reusable bottles, students instead reached for bottled soda, juices, or sugar-free drinks, which often use thicker plastic than plastic water bottles.

The following chart from the study shows the change in plastic bottle consumption.

To make matters worse, students also consumed more calories, sugars, and added sugars per capita than before the ban.

“I understand the point about limiting plastic that goes into the waste stream by removing bottled water,” says Johnson, one of the study’s co-authors. “But to remove bottled water and then continue to sell unhealthy sugary drinks seems to defeat any public health goals. You’re simply taking away a healthy choice.” Which, she says, is why many public health advocates oppose restricting bottled water where bottled sugar water is sold.

At a time when bottled water is on track to outsell carbonated drinks by 2017, the decline in soda consumption is, as the New York Times recently put it, “the single largest change in the American diet in the last decade.” Annual soda consumption in the US has declined for more than 10 straight years and bottled water is a major factor in slowly washing cola out of the market. Every bit helps in the battle against obesity, diabetes, heart disease and many other public health problems associated with excess sugar. But with these bans, says Johnson, “you’re basically taking away plain unflavoured water and continuing to sell sugar water. As a public health advocate, that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Source: Canadian Grocer / Macleans.ca