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University Of Vermont's Ban On Bottled Water Backfires


In recent years, environmentalists have worked to reduce waste from plastic water bottles. At the University of Vermont, a student campaign convinced administrators to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. That ban took effect two years ago. But as Taylor Dobbs of Vermont Public Radio reports, things haven't worked out as planned.

TAYLOR DOBBS, BYLINE: Unintended consequences - that's the phrase UVM officials and professors use when they're talking about the results of the bottle ban.

RACHEL JOHNSON: They weren't using fewer bottles, or they weren't purchasing fewer bottles. And then of what they were purchasing - they were purchasing more unhealthy drinks.

DOBBS: A study by UVM nutrition professor Rachel Johnson and one of her students found that eliminating bottled water actually drove the total number of single-use bottles up.

DOBBS: When we compared the spring of 2012 to the spring of 2013 - so baseline to when the bottled water ban was put in place - the number of bottles shipped per capita or per person to the UVM campus actually went up by 6 percent.

DOBBS: In other words, after the bottled water ban, the university ended up with more bottles on campus. UVM junior Jimil Irick was outside a market at UVM's student center sitting with a friend and drinking from a bottle of apple juice. He's not surprised by the findings.

JIMIL IRICK: Yeah. I mean, I figured something like that because they still sell - everything else is plastic, so I don't really get it.

DOBBS: Despite the increased waste, UVM students often celebrate the school's environmentalist culture. Ilana Copel is a 2013 graduate and was one of the student leaders who pushed for the ban, and she says it reflects the university's culture.

ILANA COPEL: There’s always been that feel at UVM that that's kind of what you do. You bring your mug, and you bring your bottle. And you bring your spork, even. So I think it's about setting examples for each other.

DOBBS: University vice president Richard Cate was really hoping for different results from the study. He says UVM invested about a hundred-thousand dollars in water refill stations around campus to make it more convenient for students who bring reusable bottles. But that didn't do the trick.

RICHARD CATE: It wasn't the way we wished things had been, so we had to step back and say, OK, what else can we do?

DOBBS: It may not be news to parents, but it's really hard to get college students to change their behavior.

JOHNSON: And what you want to do is make that healthy choice the easiest choice. Make that the logical default choice. And I think what the UVM community has learned is that just banning something - banning bottled water - is not going to change behavior unless you make that behavior change easier.

DOBBS: The University is doubling down on the ban, but some students say it should be abandoned as a failed policy. Irick says says that since the ban didn't have the intended results...

IRICK: Rather than keeping it banned, just look for other alternatives rather than, you know, having something that's not effective.

DOBBS: But Cate says the administration is determined to make the ban work.

CATE: This is really much more about trying to improve upon what was a good idea. We had unintended consequences.

COPEL: When I first saw the study, I was really disappointed. I thought the university might try to backtrack, and I'm really impressed and proud that they're not.

DOBBS: Copel says she's glad the university is committed to the policy she and others promoted for years. To that end, the administration has ordered up even more water refill stations with cups available for students who don't have a reusable bottle. The cups, of course, are biodegradable. For NPR News, I'm Taylor Dobbs in Colchester, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.