Bottled water no longer sold on campus due to environmental concerns

Rachel Alexander

Next time you’re eating lunch in the Reid Café, you might notice that bottled water is absent from refrigerator shelves. Starting this semester, Whitman College and Bon Appétit will no longer be selling bottled water on campus. The decision was made largely because of environmental concerns about the impacts of bottled water.

“It just makes sense to reduce our consumption of plastic,” said Sean Gehrke, chair of the Sustainability Advisory Committee.

Plastic water bottles produced for U.S. consumption use about 17 million barrels of oil annually, according to a United Nations report released last spring. In addition, 86 percent of bottles are not recycled, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Gehrke said that the Committee hopes to encourage students to carry reusable water bottles and fill them with tap water.

“We have fantastic drinking water here in Walla Walla,” he said, adding that tap water is cheap and widely available on campus.

Whitman is one of a growing number of schools to limit or end sales of bottled water on campus. Earlier this fall, Seattle University became the first college in Washington to ban sales, after a three-year student-led campaign. Nationwide, eight schools have completely banned bottled water sales, according to The New York Times.

Whitman’s campaign to end bottled water sales began last fall and was organized by the Sustainability Advisory Committee, Campus Greens and other concerned students. Senior Ari Frink, one of the Sustainability Coordinators, helped gather signatures for a petition to the administration.

“Most people we talked to signed it,” he said. “There’s a lot of student support behind this.”

Gehrke said that the Whtiman administration, Bon Appétit and Coca-Cola, which has a vending machine contract with Whitman, were all supportive of the effort. Past efforts to remove bottled water from campus vending machines have been met with concerns about promoting healthy beverage choices.

“This has come up before,” said Gehrke. “The decision to leave bottled water in [vending machines] was to provide a healthy alternative if people didn’t want to get soda or something that has a lot of sugar in it.” However, he said that the Sustainability Advisory Committee felt that this potential negative impact was offset by the waste reduction benefits.

Frink also felt that the potential negative effects were likely to be small. He cited a study done at DePaul University, which enacted a similar policy banning bottled water sales. The study found that consumption of other beverages did not increase when bottled water was removed.

“My hope would be that the removal of [bottled water] would encourage people to bring a reusable bottle,” said Frink.

Frink stressed that this policy is not a ban of bottled water on campus, but simply an end to the sale of the product. Students who do not want to drink tap water for health or other reasons are free to purchase bottled water elsewhere and consume it on campus.

Additionally, the new policy will not affect the presence of bottled water for guest speakers. Because so many departments are involved in bringing guests to campus, it would be very difficult to remove bottled water from speaking events.

“I would love for every speaker to be drinking from a glass or a cup instead of a bottle,” said Gehrke. “But I doubt there’s a huge epidemic of bottled water that’s being used [for speakers].”

For Frink, ending bottled water sales goes beyond the environmental implications. He pointed out that bottled water is about 1,000 times more expensive than tap water. This cost adds up: Americans consumed 10.5 billion dollars of bottled water in 2009 according to the International Bottled Water Association. For comparison, the cost to provide 10 liters of clean drinking water per day to the 1.1 billion people on earth who currently don’t have access to it would be about 6.6 billion dollars per year.

“To make a product out of clean water, [which] should be readily and freely available to everyone, seems disingenuous as best,” said Frink. “It commodifies a human right.”