New Research Shows Bottled Water Bans Bad for Your Health and the Environment

Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, announced in 2013 that they would ban bottled water sales on campus in an effort to be more green. Dozens of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada have instituted similar bans; however, new research shows that banning bottled water sales have actually caused greater health problems with no environmental improvement.

The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) published the study “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” which concludes that bans and restrictions on bottled water sales lead to more consumption of unhealthy beverages and plastic waste. The study examined beverage sales and plastic waste at the University of Vermont (UVM).

Health Impacts of Bottled Water Bans

College students are constantly on the go, so campuses that offer bottled water for purchase provide a healthy, convenient, low-cost product that keeps students hydrated. When bottled water is not available in campus community centers or vending machines, however, the consumption of sugary and caffeinated beverages increases significantly. In the UVM study, unhealthy beverage sales increased by 25 percent.

Sugary beverages–even beverages with artificial sweeteners–are hard on the human body. High sugar intake from soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks can lead to obesity, diabetes, fatigue, poor focus, difficulty recalling information, and dehydration.

Environmental Effects from Bottled Water Restrictions

The whole purpose for restricting bottled water sales on college campuses was to reduce plastic waste by encouraging students and staff to fill reusable water bottles from the tap. The AJPH study shows that removing bottled water from campuses has had the opposite effect. At UVM, there was an 8.5 percent increase in the amount of plastic bottles entering the waste stream.

Chris Hogan, Vice President of Communications for the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) cites data from the EPA, saying that bottled water containers are the most highly recycled containers in curbside programs.

“These bans are a misguided attempt to deal with a waste issue that would be better addressed through efforts to increase the recycling rates of all packaged drinks. … [P]lastic water bottles make up less than one-third of one percent of U.S. waste stream. So, getting rid of bottled water on campus will not make a significant improvement to waste issues,” Hogan said.

Long-Term Implications of Bottled Water Sales Limitations

Since the publication of the study at UVM, IWBA has noticed an increasing number of social media posts that indicate similar results are found at other colleges and universities that have restricted or banned the sale of bottled water on campus. Although efforts have been made at these institutions to encourage reusable water bottles, such as installing goose-neck spouts at water fountains and giving away free water bottles to students, the data show people are not using these alternatives. In fact, they are consuming less healthy beverages and improperly disposing even more plastic waste. Furthermore, bottled water bans inhibit students’ freedom of choice when it comes to selecting the healthiest beverage option from vending machines and community centers.

“Telling students that they cannot buy bottled water is a step backwards, especially with the growing rates of obesity and diabetes in the U.S,” Hogan said. “I would encourage students and schools, if they want to make a real difference for the environment, to focus their efforts of improving recycling rates of all beverages, not single out one the healthiest drinks on the shelf.”

Learn more about the AJPH study on the effects of school water bans.