How banning bottled water can backfire

Banning bottled water is supposed to benefit the environment and consumers, but might end up doing neither

Bottles with soft drinks, isolated on a white background. Markus Mainka/iStock

Markus Mainka/iStock

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.

While the move drew hackles from beverage companies, it was cheered by environmental groups and community leaders who have long viewed bottled water as wasteful and polluting. (Never mind this is the city that dumped nearly five billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River last year.) But it turns out banning bottled water might not have the green, consumer-friendly result its supporters hope. If anything, it could turn out to be a boon for the bottled sugar-water business instead, and potentially fill trash bins with even more plastic.

That’s the finding of a researcher 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.

Yet in the months following the ban, students didn’t stop reaching for the plastic bottle, according to Rachel Johnson, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont who published her findings last year in the American Journal of Public Health. Instead, they consumed even more.

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. In other words: you can lead students to tap water, but you can’t make them drink.

“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 U.S. 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.”

So as Coderre considers sending plastic water bottles into retirement, he may need to consider what’s to come: Montrealers filling up on sugary pop instead and more plastic bottles ending up the garbage.

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How banning bottled water can backfire

  1. The answer is to ban all single use plastic bottles starting with the ones that contain sugar. 17 million barrels of oil are needed to make all those plastic water bottles, not including the sugar/caffeine containers.

  2. Interesting article. I wonder why the students in Vermont chose not to drink out of the fountains, and opted to purchase sugary drinks instead? Could it be that they didn’t like the taste of the water from the fountains? Or perhaps the fountains were unsanitary? Or could it simply be that they didn’t have their water bottle on hand when they needed a beverage? The researchers should explore this further.

    • I personally hate the taste of tap water. At home, I have a nice filter that gets rid of the taste. So I wouldn’t blame those students for not going to the water fountains.

      I remember one Ikea location where they offered a filtered water fountain

  3. Out of curiosity, how are we supposed to prepare emergency kits if we can’t have bottled water? Would manufacturers actually switch to glass? If so, wouldn’t that make also sending water to disaster struck areas very hard? Glass bottles would be heavier and the risk of them shattering during delivery would be great.

    In theory, it sounds great, but if I had to choose between drinking tap water or drinking something else, I’d choose something else.

  4. This is really interesting. I think the moral of this particular situation is that it’s all about self-discipline. I mean, we could ban all the plastic bottles in the world and still end up polluting the environment or risking our health with other junk food. The point is: the move to ban bottled water was motivated by actual and reasonable facts, so this “backfire” doesn’t change or lessen the strength of the argument that bottled water isn’t necessarily sustainable and even safer than tap water. Shifting to unhealthy beverages lies on our personal choice and not on the fact that something we THOUGHT was conveniently healthy was taken away from us. If it helps, I’d like to share this article I wrote that cites interesting facts about the usage of bottled water in the US including some statistics that would help explain why this ban was still a smart move. You can check it out on this site: http://all-about-water-filters.com/bottled-and-distilled-water-in-america-stats/#tab-con-3

  5. You missed the point entirely. It starts with bottled water and then we move on to ALL plastic bottles. It doesn’t matter what is in the container, as long as the container is not made of plastic. Let’s go back to glass or corn-based solids which are already in use at major sporting events.

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