When I first heard about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sales of sugary drinks over 16oz from restaurants, delis, movie theaters, street carts and sports venues, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The issue was interesting, but I don’t drink sugary soda and I don’t live in New York, so I kind of didn’t pay attention, until one of my blogger friends brought up the issue in a green chat group.
Are Sugary Beverages the Same as Plastic Bags?
Blogger Karen Lee wondered how banning large sugary drinks was any different from banning plastic bags. We all seemed to agree that plastic bags cause environmental harm that affects us all–especially animals that have no say in the matter–and that people should not be free to pollute. But aren’t diseases related to obesity also an environmental issue that ultimately raises healthcare costs for all of us? Maybe so. But who says sugary beverages are the main culprit? Will banning large sodas lead to bans of other types of foods whose health impacts are more debatable? And would this ban even reduce the amounts of sugary beverages consumed in the first place?
Karen published a great piece on why she feels the ban is a bad idea. She writes that while her family generally doesn’t drink soda and eats a very wholesome diet overall,
When my family goes to the movie theater, maybe once a year, we do buy a humongous sized soda and four of us share it because it’s cheaper to buy the large size – you know, the good ole, ‘for extra 25 cents, you can get the next large size…’ trick that they play on us? Well, we gladly fall for that because it’s so much cheaper AND we can’t finish 2 medium sizes! But now we’d be forced to buy 2 mediums?
And that is what got me thinking about another possible unintended side effect of this proposed regulation: Will people who want to drink more soda simply buy two smaller ones, increasing the packaging to product ratio and generating more plastic waste?
More Plastic Waste or Less Plastic Waste?
I don’t know the answer to this question. If the super-size ban caused people to drink less soda, then perhaps the amount of waste from cups and bottles would decrease. But if people simply choose to buy more than one, then the packaging waste will increase. What are people more likely to do? In an article in The Atlantic last week, researchers Brian Wansink and David Just, who conducted the studies showing that giving people unlimited portions causes them to consume more, argue that Mayor Bloomberg misread their work in his appeal to science. In fact, they believe that when people are overtly denied portions they are used to getting, they will compensate by choosing to consume more. And they worry that if this type of ban fails to achieve its goal of reducing obesity (which they believe it will) then it could “poison the water for ideas that may have more potential.”
One idea they favor, and which research editor Maddie Oatman promotes in an article in Mother Jones, is a “soda tax”–a per ounce tax on beverages with added sugar. A tax like that would give people an incentive to drink less.
From a plastic point of view, I would like to see a tax on all plastic-bottled drinks, whether they are full of sugar or not. After all, there is debate about what kinds of beverages cause the most harm… some people say those with high fructose corn syrup are the worst. Others say all fructose is harmful in large amounts, so we shouldn’t be drinking tons of juice either. There are those who believe that artificial sweeteners are even worse than sugar. And then there’s bottled water… well, it may be the healthiest of all the plastic-bottled beverages, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing bottled in plastic is a healthy choice.
But what do you think? Is New York City right to ban sugary drinks over 16 ounces from restaurants and other public spaces (grocery stores are not included), or is there a better way to get people to consume less sugar and less plastic?