Woolf: Bottle Ban

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(Host) Commentator and UVM economist Art Woolf has been considering a
recent policy initiative on his campus and he’s wondering exactly what
it was designed to accomplish.

(Woolf) As of January first, UVM
banned the sale of bottled water on campus. What’s a thirsty UVM student
to do? No bottled water in vending machines, in cafeterias, or in the
small convenience stores scattered around campus.

The bottled
water ban made the national press, and buttressed UVM’s image as the
"green university." Banning bottled water is seen as an environmental
victory, reducing the amount of plastic going into landfills. Look more
deeply at the ban, and it’s not clear that it will accomplish that end.
What IS a thirsty UVM student going to do? She can’t buy water, but she
does have alternatives.

She can bring a refillable bottle from
home. Indeed that’s what the proponents hope to encourage. Some students
already do this, but it’s unlikely that the bottled water ban will
materially increase that number. But even that alternative has problems.
Most of us wash dishes and glasses at home after we’ve used them. My
suspicion is that few students will regularly wash their refillable
bottles. That’s not a very sanitary outcome and can have some noxious

Or, our thirsty student who can’t buy a bottle of water
can instead buy a bottle of some other beverage. But if she does, then
the total number of bottles sold on campus won’t change at all.

if she buys a soda, or a fruit drink, or ice tea, then she’s drinking a
beverage with more calories than water-whether those calories are there
naturally in fruit juices or added by the manufacturer in iced tea or
soda. Do we really want to ban the healthy choice of water and encourage
students to drink sugar sweetened beverages? It’s somewhat ironic that
while UVM seems to be encouraging students and staff to drink
sugar-sweetened beverages, the Vermont legislature considered taxing
those very same drinks to try to get Vermonters to drink fewer of them.

the bottled water ban is unlikely to reduce the total number of bottles
sold on campus. The unanticipated, but predictable, outcomes, are
likely to be students and staff who put on more weight and possibly get
sick more often as a result of drinking from unclean refillable bottles
they bring from home.

This green policy at UVM is,
unfortunately, all too similar to many other green initiatives that are
supposed to benefit the environment. They are heavy on style and light
on substance.

Even worse, they lull us into the false sense that
we are doing something to help improve the environment, and it’s pretty
painless. The reality is that there are a lot of actions we could take
to truly improve environmental quality, but they involve sacrifices, are
costly and they’re not flashy. And they don’t show up on the national

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