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Bottled water gets the boot: Calgary college joins ranks of schools no longer selling water for profit

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Man hates water bottles, wastes more water.
On Oct. 6, Calgary’s St. Mary’s University College joined schools like the University of Winnipeg, Queen’s and the University of Ottawa when it banned the sale of bottled water on its campus. The Council of Canadians Acting for Social Justice only lists six schools in Canada that have made this move, though they did not have St. Mary’s on their list.

The school, which emphasizes social justice as part of its educational experience, chose water as its theme for the year. According to its vision statement, St. Mary’s aims to help “students to lead with integrity, to meet the future with confidence, intellectual acuity, moral conviction and a passion for social justice and the common good.”

Communications Coordinator Mackenzie Cann said the school’s social justice committee began working on the bottled water ban 18 months ago.

“In 2010 the UN made a declaration that clean drinking water is a basic human right,” Cann said. “They used this to back their idea.”

At St. Mary’s, the focus of the ban is geared toward the commodification of water rather than toward the environmental impact, though the campus has installed water bottle-refilling stations that count how many single-use bottles are being saved.

Still, “the idea was more that everyone should have access to clean drinking water.”

Professors at St. Mary’s have taken it upon themselves to incorporate the ethics surrounding water into their classes, according to Cann. Ethics and English professors will be discussing ethical issues and literature pertaining to the issue.

St. Mary’s is the first school in Alberta to ban the sale of bottled water. But federally the University of Winnipeg beat it to the punch, becoming the first school in Canada to ban the sale of bottled water in March 2009.

Since then, things have gone swimmingly, says U of W’s Campus Sustainability Office Director Alana Lajoie-O’Malley.

When asked if there has been any pressure to return to selling water, she responded, “If anything, the pressure we’re getting is more along the lines of, ‘Well, if we’re not selling bottled water, why are we selling any bottled beverages at all?’ ”

U of W Students’ Association President Lauren Bosc agreed, saying that there has been “a very positive reaction” to the ban on campus, and even in the surrounding community.

High schools in Winnipeg have approached the UWSA about going bottled water-free themselves, as have other post-secondary schools across Canada. St. Mary’s Academy, a high school in Manitoba, has been in contact with Bosc about discontinuing the sale of bottled water.

“All government buildings in Manitoba are going to go bottled water-free soon, too,” Bosc added.

When the campus stopped selling bottled water it was also able to upgrade all of its water fountains, making them more convenient for use in refilling water bottles. Sustainability clearly comes into play when bottled water sale bans and similar actions are discussed, but Lajoie-O’Malley insisted, like Cann, that the more salient issue is the commodification of what should be treated as a human right: access to drinkable water.

“People tend to associate the ban with less bottles on campus,” Lajoie-O’Malley said. But as far as she knows, “empirical data tends to suggest there isn’t a clear correlation between banning the sale of bottled water and waste reduction.”

This is at least partially due to the fact that rather than plan ahead and bring a bottle to school, students may simply buy a different type of drink when they find themselves sitting in the library thirsting for something cool and refreshing.

Nevertheless, the environmental side of the issue is a more concrete, easily identifiable aspect of the ban that allows students to take up the cause enthusiastically.

“Bottled water is easier to identify than other environmental issues,” Lajoie-O’Malley said. “It’s easier to see and hold on to, and in that sense I think students are very proud of our campus for this.”

The UWSA has been in contact with students’ unions at schools across Canada offering advice on banning the sale of bottled water; they have also worked closely with the Canadian Federation of Students, who advocate on bottled water issues.

Photo: Pete Yee/File Photo

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