In 2013, UVM banned single-use plastic water bottles from campus. The student-driven initiative was supposed to reduce the amount of plastic going to waste. But, as a new report shows, that's not what happened.
Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at UVM, says the ban was well intentioned, but, at least in the short run, a failure.
Johnson says she wasn’t surprised at the outcome of the ban. “Because I’m a nutrition professor, I live in a world with nutrition students and students who care about diet and health. So when the bottled water ban came in place, one of the first things we said to ourselves was, ‘Well, we’re now taking away one of the healthiest choices. So what’s going to happen if we don’t change peoples behavior, in the sense that they are bringing a refillable water bottle to campus?” she says.
The ban targeted only single-use water bottles, so soft drinks, juices and other beverages in plastic bottles are still being sold on campus.
Johnson says the campaign, which was driven mainly by students, had good intentions to reduce waste. “The idea is that tap water is free, it should be easily accessible and that we could, through an education campaign, get people to start bringing refillable bottles,” says Johnson.
But that wasn’t the outcome. In a recently published study, Johnson found the number of plastic bottles being shipped to campus went up the first semester the ban was in place. Her study looked at usage in a per-capita basis. In the fall semester of 2012, before the ban was enacted, there were about 22 bottles per person shipped to the campus. But in the spring of 2013, the first semester the ban was in place, Johnson's research team found that the number of plastic bottles shipped to campus rose to about 26 bottles per person. "So that is a statistically significant difference,” she says.
Now, Johnson is urging the university to make water more available. “We need to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Johnson. “I think we made a lot of assumptions about how to go about changing people’s behavior. And also, I think that a very well intentioned change in terms of making an impact on the environment really clashed with some of our goals with nutrition and health. So we took away the healthiest beverage.”
But really, UVM took away only the single-use option for water, still leaving opportunity for students to bring their reusable containers to fill. “I think it wasn’t as easy as it might have sounded to fill that water bottle,” says Johnson.
Since her paper came out, Johnson says the university has added a water option to fountain drink machines on campus, including offering water in all of their fountain drink machines at food venues on campus, where people can ask for a free cup. “You don’t have to leave the dining area, go outside, go down the hall, find a water fountain where you can fill either a cup or reusable water bottle,” says Johnson.
UVM has also promised to change their percentage of healthy beverages available from 30 to 50 percent since Johnson’s paper came out. But what is considered healthy? Johnson says they use the definition that is put together by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “Some of the zero calorie diet beverages would be included [in the healthy category],” says Johnson. When asked if diet soda is really nutritious, Johnson says, “Calories do matter, and we know that the population that we’re dealing with, college age students, particularly young men, on average have very high intakes of sugary drinks … So to me, diet beverages, they can be a good transition beverage for someone who is used to drinking three sodas a day and can transition to a zero calorie drink, in terms of reducing those calories.”
Johnson admits there are some shortfalls to their study. “For one, we relied on shipment data. It really wasn’t realistic to measure actual consumption of beverages,” says Johnson. She explains that they made the assumption that the shipment data accurately reflected the purchasing habits of the students, and that the students drank the beverages they purchased. “The other [shortfall] is that ideally this study would continue longer,” says Johnson. “We measured what happened in the first semester that bottled water was banned, so what really has happened since then?”
The nutritionist says that because many of the students who pushed for the ban could have graduated and left by now, new students may not understand the history behind the ban. “I’d like to see a real education campaign at UVM to help people understand why bottled water is banned,” she says.
Does Johnson think the bottled water ban at UVM was a good idea? “I think bottom line, in the short run, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing,” says Johnson. “Because we didn’t reduce the number of plastic bottles going into the waste stream and the healthfulness of the beverages being consumed were less healthy, more sugary drinks.” She hopes that her study will help to show that the school needs to work on changing people’s behaviors and put policies in place to help the transition.
Correction 4:45pm June 19, 2015 This article has been updated to correct a misstatement made by Rachel Johnson about the data reported in her study, specifically which semesters showed statistical differences in per capita bottle shipments to campus.