Students lead move to rid campuses of bottled water

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2011 - 7:45 AM

St. Ben's and Macalester join a nationwide move to ban the eco-unfriendly plastic bottles at schools.

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Americans currently spend about $12 billion annually on bottled water. When you give up a 12 pack a week you�d save about $75 a year and the savings in natural resources are even more impressive.

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The College of St. Benedict used to like bottled water enough to affix its logo to the plastic and hand it out at alumni events. Macalester College did the same.

But bottled water isn't welcome anymore.

This fall, the Minnesota schools are joining a national movement to ban disposable Dasani and its ilk from campus cafeterias and admissions offices. St. Ben's recently became the first school in the state -- and the ninth in the nation -- to ban the sale and purchase of plain bottled water on campus. Macalester will start a similar policy Sept. 1.

No bottled water sold at soccer games or in vending machines. No bottled water given out at staff picnics or on campus tours.

These campus bans are part of a broader eco-unease with the $11-billion U.S. bottled water industry. Dozens of cities, including San Francisco and New York, have banned bottles of water from being bought with city money. Others have considered banning it from being sold within city limits.

Today's college students believe that the water is costly and wasteful. As Macalester senior Clare Pillsbury put it: "We don't buy bottled water."

For the College of St. Benedict, the decision was based as much on Catholic Benedictine values as environmental concerns.

"Most people jump right to the environment," said Judy Purman, director of sustainability. "More importantly, though, I think it's the view that access to water is a basic human right. The institution doesn't feel it's right to profit from the sale of something that's a basic human right."

Bans can be slippery, though. Sometimes they violate colleges' lucrative contracts with beverage companies. They might inadvertently push students toward the vending machines' sugary options. Or, especially in rural areas, students might balk at the taste of the tap water.

'What does that say?'

In the 1990s, bottled water was seen as "a healthy alternative to pop and sugared drinks," recalls Suzanne Savanick Hansen, Macalester's sustainability manager. Even after Macalester students soured on it, the college handed it out at faculty luncheons and alumni events.

The staff organizing reunions "decided to stop," Savanick Hansen said. "Enough alumni were saying, 'Why are you serving bottled water?'"

The U.S. bottled water market was 8.75 billion gallons big in 2010, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. The U.S. population consumed 28.3 gallons per capita that year -- up from 16.2 gallons in 1999 but down from a 29-gallon high in 2007.

Bottled water is "much more energy-intensive than the production of public drinking water," according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office. Once drained, 76.5 percent of plastic water bottles in the nation are thrown away. The report also found that FDA protections for bottled water are often less stringent than those for tap water.

"Macalester is claiming to be this sustainable, socially aware school," said Pillsbury, who helped lead the school's ban. "So if we're selling bottled water, what does that say?"

The bottled water industry argues that bottled water beats other packaged beverages -- both for the environment and for people's health. Bottled water has "the lightest environmental footprint of all packaged beverages," according to the International Bottled Water Association, and, unlike soda and juice, is sugar- and calorie-free.

"If you remove bottled water as a beverage choice, people do not automatically then choose another source of water," said Chris Hogan, spokesman for the association. "Chances are, they grab a bottle of high-calorie soda."

That's a big concern for colleges considering bans. They're adding fountains and filling stations. "We're working to establish a better infrastructure for tap water," Pillsbury said.

The St. Paul college has added gooseneck spigots on some of its fountains to ease the oft-tricky task of angling reusable water bottles. The College of St. Benedict has installed 31 "hydration stations" on its St. Joseph campus, with at least one in each building.

Those stations cost about $20,000. After subtracting the cost of water coolers in offices and water bottles for events, the college will make that back in about a year, Purman said. Add to that equation the loss of $5,000 to $6,000 in profits from the sale of bottled water.

"In the long run, we are going to save money," Purman said.

Tackling tap water

Both Bemidji State University and the University of Minnesota, Morris, have decided against bans, for now. But they are trying to reduce bottled water by promoting tap.

Some of their methods mirror those at schools with bans. Bemidji gives new students reusable water bottles. Morris installed filters to improve the taste of the tap water there.

"Local Morris water is not the 'best.' It needs a lot of conditioning," said Troy Goodnough, Morris' sustainability coordinator, by e-mail. "Some new folks have troubles adjusting, so we have also provided them with a better option."

The policy passed by a cabinet, a council and a senate at the College of St. Benedict bans the sale of bottled water on campus, as well as "the purchase of plain, plastic bottled water with institutional funds." That policy prevents five-gallon jugs for offices. Macalester's policy does not.

That's in part because the college is struggling with how to handle large events.

"Those are harder when you don't have a source of water," Savanick Hansen said.

Athletics is a toughie, too. The College of St. Benedict sent out a letter to all the colleges in its conference, explaining the move. It purchased a bunch of reusable BPA-free, made-in-America bottles "which we're gifting people this year to help people get over the hump," Purman said.

Teams are used to bringing their own coolers. But that still left referees.

"We used to give them a bottle of water," she said. "It's funny all the things you have to think of."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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