Thinking Outside the Bottle

Caleb Kenna for The Chronicle

Plastic bottles have a substantial environmental cost, which is leading more and more colleges to ban or limit the sale of bottled water on campus. The effort, however, has met with unexpected complications.
September 26, 2010

Wars in the past have been fought over oil. Wars in the future, experts say, will be fought over water. And it seems that the opening skirmishes are taking place on campuses, over water in little blue bottles.

Dasani. Deer Park. Aquafina. They may be clear, clean-tasting, and free of the sugary syrups that contaminate nearly every other drink in a disposable bottle. But they have inspired environmentally minded students to start anti-bottled-water campaigns with tag lines like "Just Tap It," which conveniently both advertises the tap-water alternative and carries a vulgar, attention-grabbing connotation.

More and more colleges are banning or limiting the sale of bottled water, and installing reusable-bottle filling stations—all of which is more difficult than you might think. The move puts colleges at odds with major food corporations and with a public that buys the stuff in record amounts every year. Even in deep-green Vermont, where reusable bottles seem to poke out of every bag, activists have not been able to toss out bottled water quite as fast as they had expected. Bottled-water sales are tied up with contracts and money that universities get from beverage companies.

"We're trying to show ourselves as a flagship institution of environmental research, but we're still selling water in plastic bottles," says David Maciewicz, vice president of student government at the University of Vermont, who is leading a campaign there. "It's almost an embarrassment," he says, given that colleges with less-green reputations have instituted bans. (The university has started installing bottle-filling stations around campus, which seems to have reduced bottled-water purchases.)

Washington University in St. Louis, which banned bottled water last year, might be one of the institutions Mr. Maciewicz envies. Muhlenberg College might be another: Students there took bottled water off the meal plan, leading to a 95-percent decline in consumption. Faculty meetings now feature pitchers of tap water, and groundskeepers have been given their own refillable bottles. The college has spent $40,000 on various bottle-filling stations and filtration units around the campus, but it may make some money back on the investment. For example, the facilities department, which once bought cases of bottled water for the grounds crew, will save $5,000 a year.

So what's the problem with bottled water? Christopher O'Brien, the sustainability director at American University, sums it up epically: "We have been working for 10,000 years in human civilization to create great, safe drinking water for the public, and we have succeeded, and now we are throwing it out."

Or, rather, we're throwing out tens of billions of plastic bottles every year—or enough every week to encircle the globe about five times, according to some activists' statistics. We also burn through a lot of petroleum just to bottle and truck around water that is less regulated than tap water and thousands of times more expensive. In fact, according to the activists who study the issue, bottled water is often just tap water, perhaps filtered.

American University recently held a symposium on the topic, which included a screening of an anti-bottled-water movie called Tapped. The university invited various people to debate the topic—among them, Tom Lauria, the spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association. Mr. Lauria spent many years as the spokesman for the tobacco industry and claims to be one of the real-life models for Nick Naylor, the unctuous main character in Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking. (He is strangely proud of that.)

His response to the campus movements is this: "Most students are too busy to waste their time worrying about a product that is in every store in America that sells food," he says. "So why are they picking on us? They are missing the big picture in a big way." While campuses ban bottled water, he points out, "you can buy all the soft drinks you want in the same plastic containers, only fatter, because it's carbonated."

He also raises the specter of dirty tap water. "Every time someone says, 'Filter your water if you don't like it,' they are conceding an issue with tap water," he says.

"Are you calling from D.C.?" he adds. "I was just wondering, because your tap water is legendary."

It's true that people fear their tap water, perhaps irrationally. (Activists say that fear has been drummed up by the bottled-water industry.) Mr. O'Brien, American University's sustainability director, personally considers most filters to be a waste of money, but he is starting to set them up in kitchenettes, acknowledging that, without bottled water, it's what the public will want. (American University has not banned bottles—yet.) He is also ordering special spouts for drinking fountains so people can refill their Kleen Kanteens or Sigg bottles. During a tour of the campus, he points to one of three installed as test sites.

"We had to make sure it didn't splash onto the carpet and cause problems that way," he says. "There are a million little things you wouldn't think of, when you just want to fill your bottle with water."

Maybe more, if you're at a place like Arizona State University. Tap water in the Southwest contains a surfeit of minerals, so people are accustomed to drinking bottled water or water that has been filtered through reverse osmosis, a process that can waste up to 10 gallons of water for every gallon filtered. The university is looking for more-efficient carbon-filtration units that produce water tasty enough for the public.

"We are not pursuing a bottled-water ban because we need to have a reliable system in place" first, says Bonny Bentzin, Arizona State's sustainability director. She estimates that the new filtration plan could cut drinking-water costs by two-thirds in some departments.

As an educational tactic, the university put out a flier describing the various ecological problems with bottled water. Ms. Bentzin soon got a call from Nestlé Waters, which produces Deer Park, Perrier, and other brands. "They said, 'This is unethical that you're telling people not to drink bottled water,'" she says. "They were pretty aggressive."

Pennsylvania State University has been working with the drinking-fountain manufacturers Elkay, Oasis, and Hawes to produce water-bottle filling stations. Earlier this year, the university installed prototypes and swabbed them periodically, discovering that they had the potential to transmit bacteria from bottle to bottle. Elkay and Oasis produced new designs, and now 11 of them are installed around the flagship campus. The university will test those, too, even as it plans to install more.

The university is doing this simply because it's "the right thing to do," says Steve Maruszewski, deputy associate vice president for physical plant, as there is really no financial upside. Replacing the filters in the bottle stations could cost $150 per station per year. For the foreseeable future, the university will continue to make some $2-million a year in bottled-water sales, mainly at athletics events.

Money is a consideration at the University of Vermont, too. The university gets a contribution from Coca-Cola for financial aid, athletics, and other programs—some $480,000 this year—in exchange for maintaining a contract with the company, which sells Dasani. Richard H. Cate, vice president for finance and administration, says the university needs to see the contract through to 2012. At that point, Vermont can decide to stop selling bottled water—if that's what the university community supports after a robust discussion, he says.

But given the politics around the issue and the sensibilities in Vermont, chances are pretty good that the university won't sell bottled water in the future.

"From a personal perspective—take the university out of the equation—I don't need any convincing," Mr. Cate says. "I never buy those things."