At the University of Maryland College Park, students have persuaded the undergraduate and graduate student governments to stop buying bottled water for their meetings and events. Now they serve large pitchers of tap water.
Washington University in St. Louis has adopted an all-out ban in the hope of alleviating the waste going into landfills. The president of University of Mary Washington in Virginia forbade spending school funds on bottled water. Goucher College in Baltimore removed bottled water from its dining halls and campus eateries, but not its bookstore and vending machines.
Proposed restrictions often are met with opposition and caution. Some administrators say they want to avoid discouraging water consumption, especially when students can become dehydrated while playing intramural sports (or drinking games). And there’s the ongoing fight against the Freshman 15: If a student is standing at a vending machine, a bottle of water is usually the least-fattening option.
“It’s definitely a complex issue,” said Aynsley Toews, coordinator of the U-Md. Office of Sustainability and a member of a task force looking at other possible restrictions. Already the group has heard concerns about the university losing money from bottled water sales and not keeping its students properly hydrated. “Then there’s flavored water, there’s vitamin water. What do you do with those?”
Similar concerns are echoed by the industry. “You are telling people not to drink water? Holy mackerel,” said Tom Lauria, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association. “It’s odd that colleges would look to ban a healthy, legal product.”
Even some environmentalists worry bans could alienate students who are just starting to warm to eco-friendly ideas such as running fewer loads of laundry. When DePauw University in Indiana contemplated a bottle ban in 2010, an opposition group popped up on Facebook, where one student wrote, “guess the next logical thing is to make meatless mondays official. this is ridiculous.”
Americans purchased 8.45 billion gallons of bottled water in 2009. Environmentalists say resources are wasted on producing and transporting bottles of water when most people could receive the same product — for far less money — from their kitchen faucet. Each year about 50 billion water bottles end up in landfills, according to estimates.
Rallying against bottled water has become a cause for college environmental groups in the past few years, especially with the popularity of “Tapped,” a documentary about the bottled water industry.
While bans remain controversial, many colleges are instead trying to make it easier for students to pick refillable bottles over throwaway ones. They are also educating students about recycling and how their several-bottles-a-day habit quickly piles up in a landfill.
Often that means building a giant sculpture made up of thrown-away water bottles. At Maryland, a group of students spent two hours pulling bottles out of trash cans to construct its five-foot-tall plastic statue of a water bottle. At Penn State University, students opted to spell out the word “NO” in collected bottles. (Lauria and water bottle proponents, meanwhile, note that their bottles are the single most recycled item in curbside programs.)
Many schools have also installed “refilling stations” that filter tap water and are easier to use than traditional water fountains. The University of the District of Columbia is in the process of installing “hydration stations” in all of its buildings, while American University is upgrading 100 water fountains to include a bottle-friendly faucet.
American also gives each incoming student a free, reusable water bottle at orientation, and a few times a year the sustainability director hosts a blind-taste test of an array of water options — including tap, filtered and several bottled varieties. The goal is not to limit the number of options students have, but to make reusable bottles the hippest choice, said Chris O’Brien, American’s director of sustainability.
“It’s cool to have a refillable water bottle,” he said. “It’s not cool to be seen with a product that produces greenhouse gases and is not sustainable.”