Sales of bottled beverages at Washington University in St. Louis have plummeted 39 percent since 2009, when the university became the first in the nation to ban the sale of plastic single-use water bottles. The school initiated the ban as part of its comprehensive efforts to reduce its environmental impact.
Soda fountain sales also have dropped during that timespan. That means Washington University students, staff and faculty members are not replacing bottled water with sugary soft drinks, as some observers feared.
“Our research shows the ban has been wildly successful,” said Phil Valko, assistant vice chancellor for sustainability. “We have achieved an important university goal — reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions — and have done so while also seeing a major reduction in the consumption of bottled and fountain sugar-sweetened products.”
Research from the Office of Sustainability shows the university purchased 871,776 bottles of sodas, energy drinks and juices during the 2014-15 academic year, down from 1,439,088 bottled beverages in 2008-09. That’s a reduction of 567,000 bottles in a single year. Just as significant, the university purchased 46 percent fewer gallons of fountain drink syrup in 2014-15 academic year compared to the 2009-2010 academic year.
Washington University’s results run counter to those found at the University of Vermont, the first public university to enact a ban. In a widely reported study, researchers found students replaced bottled water with soft drinks.
“Many people in the sustainability community were concerned with the unintended consequences identified in the Vermont study,” Valko said. “There is consensus that single-use plastic bottles aren’t good for the environment and the Vermont study raised questions about the efficacy of bottled water bans, a primary strategy many institutions are using to reduce plastic bottle use. Fortunately, Washington University’s data tells a very different and very positive story about the impacts that a bottled water ban can have.”
Valko credits Washington University’s three-pronged approach for the ban’s success:
- One, the university retrofitted more than 100 existing water fountains and added new filling stations across campus. Indeed, inadequate filling stations may have been a factor at Vermont. Reports indicate that administrators there are installing even more filling stations for thirsty students.
- Two, the university supports a number of initiatives that promote good nutrition. Washington University Dining Services consistently ranks at the top of nationwide polls for its fresh and healthy food. Valko speculates nutritious dining options and nutrition education lead to healthy beverage choices.
- And three, the campus boasts a strong sustainability culture. Students initially called for the ban and continue to support it.
“Many students arrive having heard of the ban because we promote it as part of the campus culture,” Valko said. “They know that sustainability is a priority at Wash U and they want to be part of our efforts to tackle climate change and improve human health.”
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