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Woolf: Bottle Ban

(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 effects.

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.

Andif 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.

So 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 news.

Art Woolf teaches economics at UVM.
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