Habits die hard.
“A concern for some people is they can’t imagine what they would do without bottled water,” said Alexandra D’Urso, a Ph.D. student in curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University who’s involved with a new campaign to ban bottled water on campus. “It’s hard to believe that we’ve gone from a point 15 years ago when no one carried a plastic water bottle, that now no one can imagine how we would live without them.”
To borrow from John Lennon, imagine. That’s what student and faculty activists are asking on a number of college campuses where efforts to cut down on the use of bottled water, or restrict its sale -- all for sustainability’s sake -- are gaining momentum.
Many in the “Ban the Bottle” camp are taking inspiration from Washington University in St. Louis, where university money is not supposed to be spent on bottled water -- the sale of which is banned on campus as of January 1 (although it’s still being sold in one market through March 15 due to a contractual obligation).
Washington University officials have been flooded with dozens of requests for information -- how’d they do it? -- and on Friday they hosted a conference call explaining how. “I hope it can be one of those things that we can be the first domino that falls,” said Deborah Howard, special assistant to the executive vice chancellor of administration.
“It wouldn’t have been successful without the student campaign. We wouldn’t have done it. There’s too much resistance,” Howard said – resistance tied to revenues. While Washington saves money in not having to buy bottled water for catered events, “campuses make a lot of money in dining services and vending machines selling bottled water.”
“I really feel like the vast, vast majority of people just never thought about it before,” said Kady McFadden, a junior environmental studies and political science major at Washington University who led the successful "Tap It" campaign. “Just making it an issue, so if someone does have a bottle of water at least they think about it before making that purchase – hopefully that will continue, not just through college.”
Proponents of banning or limiting bottled water cite the fossil fuels injected into the processing, packaging and transporting of a product that students can get for free from the tap, as well as waste and low recycling rates.(The vast majority of bottles end up in landfills. Estimated recycling rates range from about 15 percent to -- according to the trade association for bottled water -- 25).
Industry executives, by contrast, say, first of all, that bottled water and tap aren't the same, and that bottled water shouldn’t be singled out for protest -- especially given obesity rates and the possibility that a student will reach for a Coca-Cola instead. “I’m a little confused by Washington University because all of the beverages that they sell on campus are in plastic bottles and contain mostly water, whether it’s a soda or even a beer. It seems unreasonable and short-sighted to single out bottled water, the healthiest beverage a student can buy,” said Tom Lauria, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.
“Ban the bottle” has a certain ring to it. But at a number of campuses, activists aren’t focused on restricting the sale of bottled water – citing student choice – but instead have mounted educational campaigns and are distributing reusable bottles, fixing broken water fountains, making filters available, and otherwise acting to make tap water a more convenient and palatable option.
At Brandeis University, the institution’s catering service has replaced individual bottles with reusable coolers, said Janna Cohen-Rosenthal, the sustainability coordinator. “That’s the university’s own money,” she said. But other than that, “We decided not to quote-unquote ban it. We didn’t think that was the right way to respect student choices and decision-making. Instead, we provided really good options to limit bottled water use” – including distributing reusable bottles to all students and installing fillers on water fountains to make it easier to keep them full.
"One of the biggest hurdles in convincing people not to drink bottled water is they were really concerned about tap water," said Cohen-Rosenthal. "There are so many societies where there's not access to fresh, clean drinking water, and Waltham, Massachusetts is not one of them."
At Evergreen State College, in Washington, the “Ban the Bottle” campaign restarted last week (per the rhythms of campus activism, two students who first got it going last spring had graduated). “I’m the director of sustainability for the college, I work in the president’s office, and I think if I were to push from a senior management or institution-wide [position], we could get victory. But to me that’s not a victory at all,” said John Pumilio. “A victory is seeing the students and community members on campus really say that it does not make sense to do this and just flat-out quit purchasing bottled water. That to me is victory; it’s not a mandate.”
Ultimately, Pumilio explained, he’d like to see an institutional policy restricting the sale of bottled water, but first he’d like to see a distaste for it develop as a campus norm. “I think we will eventually have an institutional policy where we’re just not selling bottled water on campus, but we haven’t reached that organic threshold yet where people aren’t purchasing bottled water anymore.”
Breck Speed, chief executive officer of Mountain Valley Spring Water, in Arkansas, said people misunderstand the realities of the bottled water business. “The misinformation is that we’re competing with tap water, whereas in the bottled water world you’ll never see any ads about bottled water being better than tap water. … Bottled water has been adopted by consumers not against tap water but against carbonated soft drinks; that’s where our growth has been,” said Speed, who publicly took offense when the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Sustainability Council announced its first project  last fall: replacing bottled water on campus. “They thought it was the low-hanging fruit,” said Speed, who has proposed entering into a recycling partnership with the university.
Recycling alone, however, doesn’t solve the issue of energy use associated with manufacturing and shipment, said Robert Cross, an emeritus professor of chemical engineering who represents the College of Engineering on Arkansas’ Sustainability Council. "There are actually some discussions of general cooperation in recycling with him on campus. We’re trying to leave the door open,” but, said Cross, “we’re committed to the bottled water program and we’re going ahead with that regardless of what else might transpire on the side.”
Arkansas' campaign is educational and voluntary in nature, and organizers stressed that they are not aiming to get campus vendors to remove bottled water from their shelves. Instead, the Sustainability Council just asked student groups to consider giving up bottled water at their meetings and events, and members are primed to similarly reach out to academic units.
It's not a shocker to anyone that many academic units are facing the prospect of smaller budgets these days. And while colleges may make money on the sale of bottled water, it also costs money when they’re the consumers -- a fact not lost on the president of one Florida college, who opted last month not to renew a contract for the coolers of bottled water dotting the campus. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., president of Saint Leo University, called them “a symbolic sign of better times.”
In a meeting, administrators asked, “ 'What are ways that we can be more responsible stewards of our resources?' and somebody pointed to the water cooler and said, ‘That’s really not necessary and it’s not good for the environment either,' ” Kirk recalled.
“It’s both symbolic and real in that it raises the consciousness of everybody when it’s that kind of visible thing [you cut], and not some department’s Xerox budget or something that no one sees.”