Can you imagine that thousands of visitors to America’s national parks this summer may not be able to buy bottled water on their hikes, camping trips, and adventure excursions? In 2011, the National Park Service (NPS) adopted a policy that allows individual national parks to ban the sale of bottled water in plastic containers. The policy was established due to concerns about plastic waste left behind by visitors. In the meantime, soft drinks, sports drinks, juice drinks, and other sugary packaged beverages, which are unhealthy options and generally use more plastic, remain on the shelves in NPS concession shops, in vending machines, and in restaurants.
However, on July 7, 2015, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit the NPS from using any funds to implement or maintain bans on the sale of bottled water at any national park.
My university banned bottled water sales for the same well-intentioned reasons as the NPS. Unfortunately, the ban did not turn out as expected. In January 2013, the University of Vermont (UVM), adopted a bottled water sales ban. As a professor of Nutrition at UVM, I took an interest in and decided to research what I saw as contradictory policies which required university dining facilities and vending machines to stock a 30 percent “healthy beverage’ ” ratio, but then banned the sale of one of the healthiest packaged beverages: bottled water.
The results of the research that I, along with my co-author, conducted made clear that UVM’s decision to remove bottled water drove our students, faculty, staff, and visitors to purchase more unhealthy sugary drinks. At the same time, the number of plastic beverage containers shipped to campus did not decrease. This happened even though the university provided free reusable water bottles at campus events, retrofitted 68 water fountains to allow for the refilling of reusable water bottles, and conducted an educational campaign to inform students about the effort.
“The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” published July 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that the UVM bottled water sales ban resulted in a 33 percent increase in the number of unhealthy sugary drinks shipped and a 6 percent increase in the number of bottles shipped to campus and thus entering the waste stream.
We collected three semesters’ worth of detailed information about packaged beverage shipments to UVM’s campus before and after the implementation of the 30 percent healthy beverage requirement and the bottled water sales ban. The data showed that shipments of unhealthy, sugary drinks increased significantly when the option of bottled water was removed, while shipments of healthy beverages declined significantly. At the same time, the overall number of plastic bottles shipped to campus was not reduced.
Consumer marketing research supports our study’s finding. When asked what alternative beverage, if any, consumers would choose if their preferred choice of plain bottled water was not available, 63 percent of people said they would choose an unhealthy soda or other sugary drink, 7 percent would choose a bottled sparkling water or seltzer, 13 percent would not replace the bottled water at all, and only 16 percent said they would opt for tap water.
As with the NPS bottled water sales ban, the UVM policy was well-intentioned and meant to encourage our campus community to carry reusable water bottles that could be filled with tap water. At least during the semester when the ban was implemented, that did not happen. The bottled water sales ban in place in our national parks, which is currently being examined in Congress, has the potential to have the same unintended consequences. The recent action by the House to prohibit the NPS from using any funds to implement or maintain bans on the sale of bottled water at any national park is one step in the right direction. The Senate must still include and approve the provision in its Parks Service funding bill to end this misguided policy.
Our study shows that these sorts of policies, regardless of the motivation behind their adoption, may result in the consumption of more calories and more added sugars, a perpetuation of unhealthy dietary choices, and — ironically — an increase in plastic waste. Our study clearly suggests that the NPS bottled water sales ban has the potential to undermine efforts to encourage healthy food and beverage choices and may be environmentally counterproductive.
Johnson is Bickford Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont.