Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Update about the Washington University conference call

This past Friday, Washington University in St. Louis organized a conference call about how they were able to go plastic water bottle free. It was very informative, and I think there are some great points that we at Penn State can appreciate as we go forward with our own efforts.

Some background

The ban at Wash. U. started when the university was trying to figure out how to reduce energy costs. It was discovered that much energy was expended on "chillers," or devices used to keep beverages cold. The administration figured that energy use and costs associated with it could be reduced by getting rid of the water bottles.

The administration approached students at Washington University to make sure that such an effort was something that the students would be supportive of. It turns out that some students on campus were already trying to get water bottles banned in St. Louis, so it was a great match of efforts.

Raising campus awareness about bottled water issues

Several attempts were made to raise the campus' awareness about water bottle waste. To raise awareness about the quality of bottled water versus tap water, the students held taste-test events to see if individuals could tell which water was bottled and which was tap. Only one individual, an administrator, was able to tell the difference. The students also held a rally, where a "tower of consumption" constructed of discarded water bottles was built to create a powerful visual of what water bottle waste looks like on a larger scale.

Another more time-consuming effort was an evaluation of every drinking fountain on campus (!). Students tasted water, measured the temperature of it, and tested the fountains to determine how easy it would be to refill a water bottle there. This helped to figure out where any access issues would impede people's ability to easily get tap water.

Impact of water bottle ban

An exciting note from a service standpoint was that the campus dining services was not greatly impacted by a loss of revenue due to the prohibition of water bottle sales. Compared with January 2008, sales of juice went up 4 to 5% in January 2009. Soda sales decreased slightly, and water bottle sales decreased 90% (bottles are still being sold in the campus store until spring break of this year). The decrease in soda consumption might indicate individuals' consciousness of plastic waste in general, not just that of water bottles.

While some money is being lost in on-campus catering, it is being gained in other places because people utilizing catering services have more money to spend on other items now that the cost of water has been eliminated. Catering on campus was willing to take a revenue hit for the greater public good of eliminating water bottles. They do not charge for providing tap water at events.

There were no problems with the university's Coca-Cola contract. In lieu of having bottled water in vending machines, Coca-Cola put vitamin water (personal note: I don't see how vitamin water is an improvement since it is technically still water).

There are few other details that I'll skip here (like bottled water distributed at graduation being phased out by 2010, for example). In total, Washington University will eliminated about 350,000 disposable plastic water bottles each year. When one considers how most bottles end up in landfills, this outright elimination is astounding.

Considerations for Penn State

During and after this conference call, I was thinking about what is different about their situation and that of Penn State. First of all, the ban was something the Wash. U. administration really wanted, not just the students. While we do have some administrators who have expressed an interest in this ban, the fact is that this is clearly not a priority (which it must be). We need to get more administrators on board in our effort. Perhaps we should consider creating a petition that is sponsored by different administrators?

The Wash. U. student representative mentioned that they made significant efforts to get student organizations on board with their efforts. The more support they had from organizations, the easier it was to inform more people about the necessity of a bottle ban.

Students at Wash. U. sold BPA-free plastic bottles as a fundraiser and donated the money raised to a charity in Kenya that works to provide clean drinking water for people there. To raise awareness, we might consider a similar move. So many people in the world don't have access to a tap, let alone drinkable water from one. People should think about that fact each time they reach for a disposable plastic bottle.

Along these lines, if we want to do such a fundraiser, we must consider what kind of bottles we buy. I've done some research into the many companies that sell aluminum and steel water bottles, and all of them make their bottles overseas, mostly in China (except for Sigg, which is in Switzerland). Perhaps BPA-free plastic is the way to go. What are your thoughts on this?

I guess that's it for now. Your comments, thoughts, and suggestions are welcome and encouraged.


  1. Great post, Alex! I love the idea about a fundraiser for clean drinking water in areas of need. I have been brainstorming about Peter's "teach-in" idea and I think that could be a part of it, in addition to giving information to students and faculty about the unnecessary waste of plastic water bottles. I am planning on contacting someone from "Take Charge" to try to get some free metal canteens for that event and if we are able to, we could give them as a gift to the people who donate to the fundraiser.

  2. I agree about the fundraiser and think that we could integrate it with the teach-in. That teach-in, I think, should be directed to all of the administration and faculty as well. It really needs to be as public, cross-institutional, and open as possible but with a clear sense of audience. I have some strategic ideas for it that we should really discuss. The faculty senate is a good place to start. We should contact them and see what sort of support we can get from them. Take the reins so to speak.
    The student group support we have right now is good and we might be able to get more. Surely we can also get some community support as well.
    Let's chat about this at the next meeting.
    Thanks Alex. Great stuff.

  3. I love the idea about using this as a teach-in opportunity. Perhaps we could tie it in with the taste-test activity? We could cover several bases in terms of eliminating bottled water myths, educating about waste, and raising awareness about our impact here at Penn State.

    One thing I forgot to mention is that the Wash. U. staff sent conference call participants an excellent powerpoint presentation about bottled water waste. They mentioned that everyone who saw it was extremely moved to act. Perhaps we can invite administrators to a meeting to show this presentation and then talk about planning a teach out?