By Cara Wilking, JD, PHAI Consulting Attorney
Researchers at the University of Vermont in Burlington (UVM) published a paper describing the impact of a campus bottled water ban that was paired with a healthy beverage requirement. The study found that removing bottled water from campus had no impact on the number of plastic bottles shipped to the campus, and resulted in higher consumption of unhealthy beverages. These results do not support the sustainability or public health goals of the bottled water ban: it failed to reduce plastic trash and carbon emissions or improve the nutrition profile of beverages consumed by students, faculty and staff on the UVM campus.
The study puts a fine point on a very practical tension that exists between two highly organized movements: the obesity and oral health prevention movements with a primary focus on shifting the public from caloric beverages to non-caloric beverages like water–for the most part regardless of how they are packaged; and a segment of the sustainability movement that has honed in on bottled water as a unique source of plastic trash, carbon emissions from its transportation, and a burden on communities from where it is extracted for packaging. The public health community regards bottled water as a healthy alternative to other drinks when consumers are choosing a beverage to buy, and the environmental community considers bottled water to be a needless source of pollution. The UVM study findings call out for solutions that meet the goals of both groups, and that combine their forces for a greater collective impact.
A constructive path forward is for both movements to work together to reduce access points for all packaged beverages. A key to the bottled beverage industry’s success has been to insert itself into every aspect of daily life. Vending machines are found in parks, schools, college campuses, recreation centers, etc. And coolers selling bottled beverages are placed at the end-caps of retail check-out lines, and fill the walls of convenience stores all over the country—including in places like college campuses. These access points haven’t always been there. They’ve been inserted via private contracts over time—these are contracts that are not required to be renewed and can be radically altered to support the environment and the public health.
A strategic focus on reducing total access points for packaged beverages benefits the environment through:
- Reduction in total number of plastic bottles used
- Reduction in carbon emissions from transport of bottled beverages
- Reduction in energy use from vending equipment and refrigerated cases
- Increase in awareness of and local support for public water systems
And benefits the public health through:
- Reduction of total packaged beverages consumed, many of which contribute to diet-related chronic disease and poor oral health
- Increase in investment and maintenance of plumbed drinking water access points
- Increase in awareness of and local support for community water systems
A focus on a total reduction of packaged beverages is timely because demand for sugary drinks is on the decline. This new path will require both movements to expand their thinking on their respective issues and entails political risks on both sides. The obesity prevention movement will have to move beyond efforts to change the product mix in existing vending machines and other retail sales outlets and embrace phase-outs of beverage vending machines and cooler equipment. A focus on an overall total reduction in sales of bottled beverages will not be cost-neutral in terms of revenues from bottled beverage sales. This will undoubtedly raise great opposition from the beverage industry and firms and institutions that profit from packaged beverage sales.
The environmental movement will have to expand its definition of bottled water to include water that has been carbonated, sweetened, flavored or brewed and packaged in plastic. A focus on bottled water alone has strategic benefits, especially on a college campus, because plain water can be accessed via drinking fountains. Moreover, allowing other packaged beverages to remain quells critics by providing choices beyond the drinking fountain. There, however, seem to be few discernible differences between bottled water and other bottled beverages: all have water as the primary ingredient, both may have been bottled at the same factory, both are placed in plastic containers, trucked in a vehicle, refrigerated in a machine, tossed into a trash or recycling receptacle, or not properly disposed of at all.
Both movements have built momentum and achieved many accomplishments. Imagine how much more progress can be made if they join forces.