The College of the Environment hired two interns this semester to draft a University policy banning bottled water from being sold on campus. Melody Oliphant ’13 and Hailey Still ’12 received funding to complete this initiative, which has been in development for two years and parallels the efforts of other universities.
“More than 20 universities across the nation have banned bottled water,” Oliphant said. “Wesleyan seems a few years behind. We’re happy to see that the College of the Environment is making this issue a priority.”
The initiative began in the fall of 2009. A sector of the Environmental Organizers’ Network (EON), led by Anne Rosenthal ’10, approached Bon Appétit about removing bottled water from Pi Café and Weshop. Bon Appétit Resident District Manager Michael Strumpf supported the initiative and stopped the sale of bottled water temporarily in these two locations in 2009 without publicizing the change.
“The elimination of bottled water from Pi and Weshop received almost no backlash,” Oliphant said. “But it was only a small step in the removal of bottles from all campus locations.”
Bottled water has since returned to these locations, and Still emphasized that bottled water remains prevalent on campus.
“Bottled water is everywhere,” Still said. “The University gives it to speakers, performers, prospective students and their families. It is served at almost all campus events, particularly at Commencement, where a bottle is put under the seat of every guest.”
Prior to this semester, Oliphant said that the process of drafting a proposal for campus-wide water bottle removal was slow going.
“The College of the Environment’s funding for the completion of this project will allow us to progress at a much faster pace and hopefully pass a resolution before the end of the semester,” Oliphant said. “The internship also gives us an important measure of legitimacy in bargaining with the University.”
Oliphant and Still are currently working to gain support from the community and educate students, faculty, and administrators about the detriments of bottled water and the reasoning behind the proposed ban.
“Bottled water presents issues of social injustice, environmental waste, and economic inefficiency,” Oliphant said. “It privatizes a public commodity. Water is a public resource, and humans have a basic right to clean, safe, and free water.”
According to Oliphant and Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not technically require bottled water companies to test their products for E. coli or submit quality reports.
“We want to emphasize that tap water is a healthier product,” Still said. “It is highly regulated by the FDA and held to more public and rigorous standards than bottled water.”
The environmental problem with bottled water lies in its plastic container and the fuel used for transportation from distributor to consumer. Oliphant and Still said that the United States uses 17 million barrels of oil for a year’s production of plastic bottles. They have presented their argument to a few small groups and have faced little resistance thus far. On Sunday, they submitted a draft of the resolution to the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA). The WSA will vote on the policy in the next two weeks.
“The WSA’s approval is extremely important,” Still said. “If the student body supports our campaign it will serve as an extremely useful bargaining tool when we present the proposal to upper-level administrators.”
They also met with the co-owners of Red and Black Café and Wes Wings, Ed Thorndike ’89 and Karen Kaffen, who said that if this campaign reduced student demand for bottled water then they would agree to stop selling it at their establishments. In the upcoming weeks, Oliphant and Still plan to speak with academic departments, University Relations, and the Office of Admission—groups they anticipate will show the strongest resistance to water bottle elimination.
President Michael Roth expressed his uncertainty about the resolution.
“I am not sure it is best to take legislative actions to remove water bottles from campus,” Roth said. “A better approach might be to encourage students not to buy bottled water, and in response, Bon Appétit would not stock it. People do not want the administration saying you cannot have and or cannot want a certain item.”
As part of their campaign, Oliphant and Still prepared several suggested alternatives to bottled water.
“We are encouraging the use of coolers, called Cambros, as a replacement for individual bottles,” Still said. “We also want to continue installing filling stations and filtered water fountains where students can fill reusable bottles.”
Oliphant and Still will draft a final resolution that will be presented to the Sustainability Advisory Group for Environmental Stewardship (SAGES) in the next few weeks. SAGES will provide feedback and eventually hand off the proposal to administrators to review as a potential University policy. They believe their status as University-employed interns will help their chances of getting the resolution passed.
“Because we have been funded by the College of the Environment to complete this initiative, we are much more likely to receive the administrative approval necessary to have the resolution incorporated into University policy,” Oliphant said.
Students will have the opportunity to learn more about the campaign to ban water bottles during open information sessions held on March 7. A screening of the documentary “Tapped,” on Feb. 29 will also be open to students interested in learning more about the bottled water industry and its societal effects.
“The elimination of bottled water will require a shift in mentality and behavior,” Still said. “Wesleyan only began using bottled water for large events like commencement in the 80s. If the University was functioning without bottles then, they can certainly do it again now.”