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Getting off the Bottle

Some colleges are starting to ban wasteful plastic water bottles, but the challenges are sometimes greater than one might think.

College students are getting off the bottle. Bottled water that is. Students and administrators are working together to change campus opinion and corporate contracts to eliminate bottled water from the campus, citing environmental, economic, and social justice as reasons to eliminate a wasteful practice.

According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, seven colleges or universities have now completely banned bottled water from campus and nearly 30 more schools have reduction campaigns to lessen their bottled water usage, although they say there could be more. The first school to ban bottled water was Washington University in St. Louis last January, and this February the University of Portland banned the bottles.

When senior Kady McFadden began her campaign to ban bottled water at Washington University in St. Louis in 2008, she was solely focused on the environmental impact of bottled water. Last year, Americans bought 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water, and about 86 percent of consumers’ water bottles get sent to landfills. To represent her campus’ bottled water use, McFadden built a “tower of consumptions,“ a giant bottle-water-sculpture made from discarded bottles. Her campaign centered on a core group of environmental facts. According to a report by Food and Water Watch, the bottled water consumed in America requires about 17.6 million barrels of oil annually. McFadden combined these statistics with the fact that St. Louis was voted as having the best tasting city water in 2007, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Along with the environmental impact of bottled water, Brown University sophomore Paige Kirstein says she became interested in eliminating the demand for bottled water at her school because it overlaps with social justice issues, water privatization, and corporate culture.

“It’s a far reaching subject, and while we often talk about it in an environmental context, it’s very much a social issue,” says Kirstein.

Kirstein and other advocates say that the bottled water industry is turning the human right to access to clean water into a commodity. According to a National Resource Defense Council report about 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipal sources. This can deplete a community’s water resources, and place strain on its infrastructure, states the Food and Water Watch report. This doesn’t just affect communities domestically, but also all over the world.

“The privatization of water becomes a human rights issue on a global scale because all over the world in places where there are water scarcity, [these people] are finding that the only way they can only obtain water from private companies who sell it back to them,” says Emily Wurth, the water program director at Food and Water Watch.

Food and Water Watch’s national campaign focuses on “reclaiming public water,” Wurth says. The campaign works with about 60 campuses across America at any one time to promote tap water. Corporate Accountability International runs a similar campaign, “Think Outside the Bottle,” providing promotional tools, guidance, and event ideas.

Kirstein worked with Corporate Accountability on thiscampaign over the past year. At Brown University, they handed out flyers, stickers, and pamphlets to students outside of Josiah’s, a popular dinning eatery on campus that accounts for 25 percent of their bottle water sales. Kirstein, and her partners, Ari Rubenstein and Ben Howard, also put on a water carnival that included water pong, trivia, and a taste test of bottled and tap water. She says their goal isn’t to just ban bottled water, but to eliminate the need and demand on campus.

“Our big mission statement is we want to eliminate the supply and the demand of bottled water at Brown,” Kirstein says.

Both students and campaign organizers say is important for students to contact their administration early in the campaign. Many times, administrators are supportive of student efforts, but need to work out complex details before a ban can be put in place.

At Washington University, for instance, the effort was administration-led and student-backed, says Matt Malten, the assistant vice chancellor for sustainability on campus. Administrators came up with the ideas to eliminate bottled water, and they looked for student support. It was up to McFadden to convince the administrators that students supported the effort.

For administrators and students alike, contracts with beverage suppliers, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, can be complicated and inhibit their choices. Elly Adeland of the Canadian-based Polaris Institute says that along with public education, changing these exclusive contracts is a major hurdle. More than 90 percent of colleges in Canada have exclusive contracts with Coca-Cola or Pepsi, and the beverage companies have entered into a similar volume of exclusive agreements with American universities. Some of these contracts, which often last at least 10 years, say that schools must sell a certain quota of bottled water or beverages in exchange for thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships. If these schools don’t meet the quota, they risk paying a fee to remove the bottles.

“Prior to 1990, [Coke and Pepsi] just donated money to campuses and schools with no strings attached,” Adeland says.

In response to many of these allegations, Coca-Cola is reaching out to college students and responding to their concerns about the environment. Coca-Cola has been pushing consumers to recycle in the recently launched Give It Back campaign, and the company has opened a new recycling plant in North Carolina. They are also a sponsor of the Recylcemania competition, which is a national competition among college campuses to have the highest recycling rate.

Both McFadden and Kirstein say that their campaign to ban the bottle has been a significant part of their college experience. McFadden will be working for Green Corp next year, and Kirstein will intern with Corporate Accountability International this summer. Kirstein says she will continue campaigning to reduce bottled water at Brown.

“I wanna see this through,” she says. “I want there to be no bottled water at my graduation.”

Tristan Fowler is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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