Earlier this month, the University of Vermont announced a decision to let its exclusive beverage contract expire, and end the sale of bottled water on campus. It has caused quite a stir. UVM is not the first US University to move away from disposable water bottles, but it may be the biggest. Higher ed institutions that have banned the bottle in the US include Macalester College, Seattle University, University of Portland, Humboldt State University, and College of St. Benedict. Abroad, the University of Leeds has become the first in the UK to ban the bottle, the University Canberra has claimed a similar designation for Australia, and University of Winnipeg is the first of several in Canada.
Around the world both student groups and university sustainability departments are targeting disposable plastic bottles as part of a sustainability movement that also addresses environmental justice. Proponents of the bans indicate that not only is bottled water a pollution issue, but also a social justice issue, as increased dependence on bottled water distracts communities from advocating for municipal water quality, which can disproportionately effect low income communities and communities of color.
Recently, the International Bottled Water Association has come out against campus bottle bans, essentially saying, “Don’t you have something better to protest?” Besides highlighting the various world plights that students could be prioritizing over water bottles, the industry makes the argument that selling bottled water is an issue of choice, and that it is clearly the healthiest alternative to sugary sodas available in the vending machine. This seems to misrepresent the choice; what about the options outside the vending machine?
Universities who have undertaken the bottle ban, or who are heading in that direction, have done so by looking to true alternatives to individually wrapped beverages. Water bottle filling stations, or hydration stations, are a popular choice, and come in all shapes and sizes. A basic gooseneck fitting can retrofit many traditional water fountains to better accommodate reusable bottles. Some stations, like the EZH20, are equipped with many more features, which can include touchless sensor activated filling, chilling, filtering, and a handy counter which displays the number of disposable bottles that have been saved over time. Another interesting alternative is the WaterVend system being used at the University of Canberra in Australia. For 1/3-2/3 the cost of a bottled water, WaterVend machines dispense ‘flash chilled’ still, sparkling, or flavored waters into your reusable container.
The movement to ban the bottle on campus around the world is largely being led by students, but they aren’t doing it alone, they are working with school administrators, food service providers, and outside organizations to get the job done. The Food and Water Watch program, Take Back the Tap, is supporting campuses across the country with resources for organizing campus campaigns. Do Something’s Go Tap campaign has worked with schools and municipalities in Australia to ban the bottle, Rethink the Drink is working with schools in the Santa Barbara area, and the Kokua Hawaii Foundation has Plastic Free Schools in Hawaii. Corporate Accountability International has a program for schools called Think Outside the Bottle, which has campaigns present at schools across the US.
And then there is the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Plastic Free Campuses (PFC) program, which seeks to support all of these schools, and all of these programs that offer great resources for students. How do we do that? We are collecting information about plastic free initiatives around the world, in order to better understand the reach of the movement towards alternatives to disposable plastic and to provide quick access to a variety of resources for anyone who wants to get involved, from campaign advice to local vendors of plastic alternatives. Through our blog and Facebook page, we want to connect organizations and students with aligned values to inspire and learn from one another. If you are on a campus that would like to be included in the PFC community, take a minute to fill out this brief form. If you are an organization that would like to have your program featured, contact ben [at] plasticpollutioncoalition [dot] org.