Sustainability in Practice: Bottled Water Bans Gain Traction

Bans sweeping the C&U segment as way to reduce waste.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Dartmouth puts hydration stations in renovated dining
halls.

Recycling plastic water bottles has long been routine at many institutions, but now some operations think that doesn’t go far enough; they want to get rid of the bottles completely. With sustainability top of mind for many departments, reducing the impact of bottled water has become a growing trend among college and university campuses. FSD spoke to three C&U locations to find out how they finally banned the bottle.

Baby steps at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.: At Dartmouth College dining services decided to dip a toe into the world of bottled water bans with an awareness campaign centered around Earth Week. David Newlove, director of dining services and Campus Center operations, says the university has long given first-year students a reusable water bottle when they arrive on campus. But the idea to center a campaign around tap water came about when the department was thinking about ideas for Earth Week.

“We decided to replace all the bottled water in our largest dining hall with specially designed CamelBak water bottles that students can buy,” Newlove says. “We basically sold them at cost. We sold them all week at that dining hall.”

In addition to the Earth Week campaign Newlove says the department places hydration stations—drinking fountains retrofitted with spouts to fill up bottles—in each dining hall when it is renovated. In addition, the department changed its dining department this year to a hybrid all-you-care-to-eat program, which limits the sale of prepackaged products.

“By doing that our bottled water usage has drastically dropped,” Newlove says. “I can see [in the future] that bottled water will go away. With the awareness campaign and the fact that our students receive reusable water bottles, I’d say our bottled water sales have dropped about 25% to 30%. We’ve put out giant bubblers of tap water with fruit in them and the kids are loving it.”

The department has also partnered with the campus office of sustainability to put on a water sampling where students taste-test different water without knowing which is tap and which comes from a bottle.

“The challenge is to teach the kids that tap water is fine,” Newlove says. “If we can get the students over that stigma they should realize that they should use their free water bottle.”

Going all in at Chatham University, Pittsburgh: Many options were discussed at Chatham University when university administrators said they wanted to eliminate bottled water on campus, according to Leslie Ekstrand, general manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at the university.

“It’s something [the university] had been talking about for a while,” Ekstrand says. “We looked at cans since those are better than plastic. We looked at a lighter plastic bottle and finally looked at water dispenser units. We went through a whole series of processes trying to figure out what would be the most convenient for students. We eventually ended up [choosing] a local filtered water company. The company put their water dispensers all around campus. Each of the incoming first-year students received a free reusable bottle. The university bought a whole bunch of other water bottles and underwrote the cost of them, so we sell them in our retail locations for like $2 even though they cost a lot more.”

The water stations were the most attractive option, according to Ekstrand, because they were cost effective and had the smallest piece of equipment that provided the service the department wanted. Ekstrand says the department has not had any pushback from students as a result
of the switch.

“I really expected students to feel inconvenienced by it,” Ekstrand says. “I think there was a really good job communicating that this was what was happening and why. Now it is just part of the culture. The university has a school of sustainability so I think this effort dovetailed nicely with what that school is trying to do.”

Education was the effort’s biggest challenge, says Ekstrand. Marketing included emails and signage that told students there would soon be no bottled water and why that change was happening. Ekstrand says the department was previously buying about 15 to 20 cases of water per week. Now those bottles are not going into the waste stream.

“The biggest challenge was making sure the education happened,” Ekstrand says. “Other than that it was pretty seamless. As long as you are prepared with your marketing and [the bottle water ban] is a whole campus initiative [it can be an easy change]. The bookstore is a different business than ours, but they also don’t sell bottled water anymore. It works better when everyone is on the same page.”

Taking it slow at College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, St. Joseph, Minn.: Judy Purman, director of sustainability for the campus, says the effort to rid the campus of bottled water was her first assignment in her role.

“When I started one of the first things the [college] president asked me to look into was the issue of bottled water on campus,” Purman says. “I put together a group, which included students, faculty and staff, which represented all interested parties on campus. These people were from the areas on campus that would be most affected by any new policy on bottled water. Those areas included culinary services, admissions, sports and bookstores. I took the group through a discussion where I told them to imagine a campus that has sustainably addressed the issue of bottled water. What do you see? From there, we went through a whole process and the group came up with the fact that we needed to ban the sale of bottled water.”

From the first group, Purman says, she formed three subgroups and assigned each a task. One group would write and vet the bottled water policy. The second group would work on what the alternatives to bottled water would be. The final group would work on education and awareness of the policy. The three groups worked through the school year to accomplish their goals. The policy was implemented in the fall of 2011.

One of the most important parts of the groups’ process was determining what the alternatives to bottled water would be. Purman says the alternatives were based on the college’s values.

“We are a Benedictine institution, so one of our values is hospitality,” Purman says. “Whenever prospective students come with their families we provide them with a fresh loaf of bread and beverages, so that was one of the issues. How are we going to provide water, especially to people who are touring campus? What admissions now does is provide a reusable bottle to students and uses it as a teaching point. Culinary has done the same thing. They do a lot of catering, so when guests request bottled water they say we have this policy and then they use pitchers and glasses or jugs for an outdoor event. For sporting events we do the same thing. We also installed 39 hydration stations all over campus so every building has at least one. It’s very easy to say there is filtered cold water right there. It’s been a process, but we have worked it out with those groups who were affected.”

Purman says she’s been surprised how smoothly the process has gone. She attributes that to taking the time to address the different departments’ issues ahead of time.

“I think that worked well for us rather than just taking on a ‘you have to do it’ kind of attitude,” Purman says. “We took the human rights perspective as in ‘water is abundant and we are wasting resources by using bottled water.’ We shouldn’t profit from the sale of something that is a basic human right. There were concerns and there were some groups who at first didn’t see that there were alternatives, but in the end they came around. I think one of the benefits was we took our time. We didn’t decide one month and implement the next. Everyone had a lot of notice that this was happening and why it was happening.

“Make sure you engage everybody who is going to be affected and work with them to address their concerns,” Purman adds. “Another one of our talking points was to let people know that we test our water regularly and it’s safe and clean. Having that information available is important.” 

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