Skip to main content

Peter Shawn Taylor is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ont.

Thirsty? If you happen to be on a Canadian university or college campus, don't expect to find a full range of thirst-quenching options. Where once student activists campaigned to "ban the bomb," these days the rallying cry is "ban the bottle." University of Winnipeg boasts of being the first university in Canada to ban the campus-wide sale of single-serving plastic water bottles in 2009. Since then numerous universities and colleges have jumped on the bottle ban bandwagon. Where complete bans are not yet in place, there's inevitably a student group with a petition demanding one.

Bottled water has earned the enmity of campus crusaders − as well as municipal institutions − for a variety of reasons. The waste generated by single-use bottles is presented as a significant environmental problem. Cost is another complaint, since water from a bottle is considerably pricier than from a fountain. A ban is also often framed as a blow struck against the commoditization of human necessity and in support of human rights. In explaining its recent prohibition on the sale of bottled water, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. declared "people should not be required to purchase water."

While the precise human right being defended by preventing willing consumers from purchasing a legal and healthy beverage seems rather fuzzy, the ultimate consequences of bottle bans are now coming into sharper focus.

For all the familiar reasons, student leaders at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt. also talked their school into a ban on bottled water sales. Rachel Johnson, a nutrition professor at the university, took the opportunity to examine what the ban actually achieved for students – and the Earth. Her results are published in the July issue of American Journal of Public Health.

Using beverage shipments as a proxy for consumption, Mr. Johnson tracked the behaviour of students and staff in the years before and after the ban. Surprisingly, she found once the ban took effect the total number of beverages sold in plastic bottles increased. Students denied bottled water didn't slake their thirst at water fountains, as ban proponents hoped, but instead sought out other forms of bottled liquid satisfaction in even greater quantity. And since the plastic in other bottles is many times thicker than flimsy water bottles, the total volume of plastic garbage produced on campus grew substantially.

There's more bad news.

"Not only did campus consumers not purchase fewer bottled drinks, but the loss of bottle water meant they consumed more unhealthy sugary drinks as well," Ms. Johnson said in an interview. Total calories from beverages rose by over 20 per cent on a per capita basis. The share of healthy beverages sold on campus dropped by more than half.

"We are actually doing harm by removing a healthy beverage choice," said Ms. Johnson, whose work focuses on obesity. The ban made things worse for the environment and student health.

No one seems to have informed bottle ban advocates of the law of unintended consequences. Or the tremendous convenience, safety and popularity of bottled water. (When Memorial University shut its campus over drinking water concerns last month, the immediate solution was to make available verboten bottled water.)

If Ms. Johnson's data is representative of other schools − and there's no reason to doubt it − bans on bottled water will inevitably lead to more garbage and more empty calories on campuses everywhere. Big gulp.