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Should universities ban bottled water?

This question has been debated among students, faculty and staff members in nearly 60 colleges and universities for several years now, and a conclusive answer is still out of reach.  As more and more schools increase their efforts to "go green," the issue of bottled water vs. tap water gets more heated.  The intention behind the effort is, unarguably, noble, as most people want to do their part to help the environment.  The debate lies in whether or not an all-out ban is the answer to the issue of plastic bottled water waste on campus. 

Some argue that the choice should be left up to the students.  With the forbidden fruit principle in mind, some schools have opted to supply alternatives rather than issue an all-out ban, with the hope that respecting students' right to choose will encourage them to choose the healthier, free water option.  Others argue that banning bottled water is the only way to really make the desired difference happen.

In a response to his school newspaper on the bottled water debate, DePauw University student, Tyler Hess claims:

"A campus boycott just isn't practical and wouldn't solve the problem; a campus ban would. I know students who still drink bottled water daily, have signed on to the ban, and will be fine not drinking it once it's actually gone. It's just about continuing our student driven, economically feasible, factually proven, and environmentally sustainable movement without being clouded by misinformed journalism."

Many arguments exist on both sides of the debate.  Here is a list of five reasons for and five reasons against banning bottled water on college and university campuses.  Consider it an unbiased effort to reverse the trend of "misinformed journalism," and hopefully leave readers with enough information to make the best decision for themselves.    

Why your School should Ban Bottled Water

Protect the Environment

Environmentalists across the nation consider this one of the most important reasons for banning bottled water. Colleges and universities that work hard to promote sustainable efforts present students, faculty and staff members with countless facts about bottled water, many of which are centered on the issue of our environment (not to mention, the resource itself, since two-thirds of the environment is made up of water). 

Simply put, bottled water is bad for the environment.    According to several sources, only about 20 percent of plastic water bottles are actually recycled; the rest end up in landfills, where they take 1,000 years to biodegrade and release toxic fumes if incinerated.  Billions of plastic water bottles are contributing to mountains of garbage while space for this waste begins to run out.  In addition, large amounts of other resources, like energy, oil and even water are depleted in the bottle manufacturing process and transporting these bottles long distances burns enormous amounts of fossil fuels. 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics comes from the Evergreen State College Sustainability Website:

"The Pacific Gire, a naturally occurring giant whirlpool in the Pacific Ocean currently hosts a Texas-sized island of trash in its center.  Water tests from the area indicate there are more plastic particles in the water than plankton by a factor of six!"

Reduce Campus Beverage Costs

If environmental cost is number one, consumer cost falls next in line.  In a recent New York Times article, The University of California is criticized for its outrageous bottled water expenditure in spite of recent budget cuts.  If the University can't afford to pay its workers, how can it afford to spend hundreds of thousands a year on bottled water, for its campuses in San Francisco and Berkeley? Especially since these two cities boast "some of the nation's highest-quality drinking water," according to the article.   

Bottled water costs more per ounce than gasoline and thousands of times more than tap water.  Collectively, Americans spend tens of thousands of dollars on yearly bottled water expenses, as bottled water companies spend billions on advertising their brand as coming from natural sources and being healthier than tap.  Clearly, colleges and universities aren't the only populations affected.  However, perhaps since these are places that house so many influential young people, a school ban is one of the most powerful places to start.  Students already pay thousands for tuition.  Why should they pay more to sustain the bottled water industry through campus vending machines and retailers?

Bolster the University's Image

An article in the student newspaper at Washington University in St. Louis, investigates the bottled water ban as a way to bolster the university's image.  Many colleges and universities are increasing their efforts to "go green," with sustainability committees that implement recycling and waste reduction programs.  Campus buildings at many schools are Green LEED certified.  Student environmental groups unashamedly voice their passion for protecting our planet.  With all of these "green efforts" in place, a school's decision to ban bottled water may come as no surprise.  It paints the university in a positive light, attracting more students and boosting enrollment. 

Bolstering the university's image is a good thing.  However, as this article attests, it can't be the number one priority.  Banning bottled water will have less of an impact if other environmental efforts are not implemented simultaneously, as others might think image, and not environmental health, is the main concern.

Bottled Water is No Better than Tap

Pictures of mountain springs surrounded by lush vegetation on the bottles of many water brands suggests that the source of bottled water is both natural and less accessible, making it more appealing to consumers.  However, according to an article in The Heights, a Boston College independent student newspaper, "the EPA estimates that nearly 20 percent of all bottled water comes from tap water."  In fact, Coca Cola's Dasani, and Pepsi's Aquafina are both municipally sourced and filtered.  Moreover, plastic bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and often contain bisphenol-A (BPA), both of which are toxic substances that have been known to leech into the water.

Bottled water is also less regulated than tap. While municipal sources are subject to strict EPA quality standards, bottled water is regulated by the less-strict standards of the FDA from which some brands are even exempt.  According to the article in The Heights:

"The FDA even allows for a small amount of contamination from E. Coli and fecal coliform bacteria, which may indicate the presence of fecal pollutants. Tap water, on the other hand, must be confirmed to have none of these bacteria at all."

Tap water quality standards are high right now, but if the bottled water industry takes over, some fear this could change.  The University of Ottawa in Canada argues that, "the more that affluent Canadians rely on bottled water, the less pressure governments will feel to protect municipal sources. Those who are less well-off will have no choice but to drink tap water of potentially diminishing quality."  

Water is a Basic Human Right

Why should we pay for something that's already free? This is the question posed by students at Penn State University over a year ago in a campaign against bottled water.  If two-thirds of our natural world is made up of water, then bottled water companies have no right to convince us that we should pay for it.  In an article in The Daily Collegian, Education professor at Penn State, Madhu Prakash, compares the purchase of bottled water to the purchase of an oxygen tank, arguing that if we don't have to pay for the air we breathe, we should not pay for anything else that we can access naturally for free.  

Those that fear water contaminants in city supplies, no longer have an excuse on a school campus where water fountains contain filters.  Several schools have implemented effective reverse osmosis filtration systems, allowing students to fill reusable bottles at water fountains.  Harvard Law School's Sustainability Website features a "Water Map" locating 13 places on campus where students can obtain filtered tap water.

Why your School should NOT Ban Bottled Water

People Will Turn to Less Healthy Alternatives

A public ban against bottled water might eliminate one source of plastic bottle waste, but there are still many other sources to think about.  An editorial in DePauw University's college newspaper argues that, "an all out ban on the product seems illogical, as there are numerous other products sold in plastic bottles."  Instead of drinking water, students may opt for other less healthy bottled alternatives like sugary soda or juice, or even flavored water if it is not banned as well.  Moreover, dining halls on many campuses still use plastic and paper cups, plates, and even Styrofoam, which are just as harmful.  Banning bottled water, as mentioned before, would bolster the University's image in one area, but if other areas such as these are ignored, then most people will see right through the campaign.   

Bottled Water is a Practical Emergency Water Supply

What happens when a boil advisory is issued in your city?  An article in The Boston Globe illustrates the widespread frenzy that occurs when a city's tap water supply becomes contaminated.  In this article, it is clear that most residents turned to the bottle for comfort, as store shelves in Boston ran dry.  Although boiling water kills microorganisms, bottled water is more convenient.  Moreover, when natural disaster happens, bottled water is often the source for people who are put out of their homes and don't have access to a boiling mechanism. 

The DePauw addresses another, similar point.  Water is a must-have on a weekend camping trip, but one bottle is not enough, and there may not be clean water sources in the wilderness for refilling.  Many people rely on bottles of water to get them through a weekend expedition.  This principle of practicality applies for college students that spend endless hours on campus and need a convenient water option. 

Bottled Water is Convenient

The convenience of bottled water is, perhaps, the biggest reason college students would not support a ban.  If a student is sitting in class and gets thirsty, rather than making ten trips to the water fountain within a single hour, doesn't it make sense for him to just buy a bottle of water?

Some argue that a bottled water ban will not decrease bottled water waste on campus.  In fact, in the name of convenience, a ban might actually have the opposite effect.  An article in the Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom states that, "even with the changes, faculty, staff and students still will be allowed to bring their own bottled water to campus."  Many schools have adopted this model, banning the sale of bottled water on campus, but not banning its presence altogether.  They are hoping that students will choose to bring reusable containers, but without policing them, there is no way to be sure.  It is likely, according to many arguments, that students will seek bottled water off campus and bring it to school with them, which uses more energy and still contributes to waste.  For this reason, some argue that a complete ban that does not allow any plastic bottled water on campus could be the most effective measure.

Campus Tap Water Sources May Not Be Clean

Students may fear unclean tap water sources.  This is an issue, particularly, at older schools with old pipes, or in cities that don't rate high for clean water.  Students face the risk of contamination from lead and other heavy metals. 

There is also the highly debated issue of fluoride.  Though scientists claim that fluoride is good for dental health, ingesting too much can lead to dental fluorosis and possibly even bone cancer.  Some people do not want their water fluoridated, and since many bottling companies use high tech filtration systems that filter out the fluoride, bottled water becomes a preference over tap, especially since not all schools have implemented such high-level filtration systems.

Consumers Have a Right to Choose

As mentioned earlier, water is a basic human right.  However, so is the consumer's choice.  Banning bottled water will reinforce the fact that water should be freely available, but at the same time, will take away the consumer's freedom to choose.

In an article in The Eagle Online, American University argues that:

"students, as members of an economically free society, should be able to purchase any product they so choose within the bounds of the law. It's not right to restrict students' consumption choices in this way, especially when there's nothing being said regarding the removal of less healthy substitutes."

Some schools opt to provide alternatives without issuing an all out ban.  In 2009, A.S. Chico University participated in a nationwide "Take Back the Tap" campaign and passed a measure to install filtration systems in school fountains as well as water bottle filling stations near school retail locations where bottled water is normally sold, in order to give students the option.  Students could then choose to bring a reusable bottle to campus and refill it with filtered tap water.  Giving students this choice, rather than enforcing a ban, according to an article in The Orion, the school's independent newspaper, will likely encourage them to take advantage of the free water available.

Additional Sources

Kalamazoo College Reduces Bottled Water on Campus" - Kalamazoo College

University of Vermont Students Petition to Ban Bottled Water" - University of Vermont

Oberlin Student Senate Passes Bottled Water Ban" - The Oberlin Review

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