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Towards a bottled water-free campus

By in Features/News

The University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability Student Association is leading a campaign to ban the sale of bottled water on the U of S campus.

“Bottled water is an unnecessary product; we just don’t need it,” said SENSSA president Manuel Chavez-Ortiz. “Water is and should be a free product.”

SENSSA’s campaign against bottled water began in September and has seen the group work with the U of S Students’ Union, the Office of Sustainability and the Global Institute for Water Security’s Student Outreach Committee to organize a number of events and initiatives.

SENSSA is not the first group to take on the sale of bottled water at the U of S. In 2009, a student group called Better than Bottled was founded and has been promoting the cause to this day.

During the USSU Sustainability Week in November, 2013 SENSSA had a booth in Upper Place Riel where students could participate in a blind taste test that compared bottled water to tap water. The group also showed a short documentary called The Story of Bottled Water and led trivia sessions.

“Bottled water is an unnecessary product; we just don’t need it.
Water is and should be a free product.”

-Manuel Chavez-Ortiz
SENSSA President

Chavez-Ortiz said students have reacted positively to SENSSA’s campaign. The blind taste test was particularly well received and the results showed that a majority of participants prefered the taste of tap water to bottled. A petition against the sale of bottled water on campus has been circulated by the group since the beginning of the school year and has garnered support from across the student body.

SENSSA has three full pages of signatures and hopes to run an online version of the petition in the near future.

An important part of the SENSSA’s campaign is educating students on the drawbacks of bottled water and the benefits of tap water. This includes dispelling the myth that bottled water is better or safer than tap water.

“The booth we had in Upper Place Riel during Sustainability Week informed a lot of students that they could drink tap water,” said USSU Vice-President Student Affairs Nour Abouhamra. “Lots of these students are international students or not from Saskatoon and came from cities or towns where they couldn’t drink the tap water.”

Heather Trueman, the initiatives manager at the Office of Sustainability, said the idea that bottled water is safer than tap water is one perpetuated largely by the marketing divisions of beverage companies. Saskatoon’s public water sources are tested daily to ensure their quality is up to a certain standard.

“In certain parts of the world, yes, you can’t get safe water and bottles can be one way of getting it,” Trueman said. “But we have safe water. It’s just been marketed to North Americans that we need it.”

SENSSA also wants to educate students on the significant environmental impact of bottled water production. A study done by a U of S geography student showed that the embodied energy — the energy needed to produce a product and get it to market — in bottled water is 1,300 times greater than tap water.

“The water is pumped and purified somewhere else, put into bottles and once they’re filled, they’re moved thousands of kilometres to where they’ll be used and then sit in water coolers until they’re sold,” Trueman said.

Trueman added that while a ban on bottled water would provide no direct benefit to the U of S in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it would instead benefit individuals concerned with their own carbon footprint through what she called “personal, ethical choice.”

The Office of Sustainability has provided support to SENSSA, but has played no direct role in the campaign.

“We don’t get involved in the activism on campus — that’s for students. We work with student groups who need information and we can provide small grants to support their initiatives,” said Trueman.

The Office of Sustainability works to promote positive environmental practices at an institutional level at the U of S.

However, the Office of Sustainability has been working through its own initiatives toward the reduction of plastic bottles on campus. The office encourages the use of reusable water bottles and hands them out to students regularly.

In the summer of 2013, the Office of Sustainability retrofitted seven water fountains on campus — one in the Administration Building and three each in the arts and engineering buildings — with reusable water bottle filling stations.

The filling stations keep a running tally of the number of bottles of water each individual unit has saved since their installation. At press time, these tallies ranged from 918 on the third floor of the Administration Building to 22,331 on the second floor of the Engineering Building.

According to Trueman, the Office of Sustainability has the budget to retrofit 17 more water fountains with the filling stations and will be doing so in the near future. The current plan includes the water fountains in Place Riel. The office also has a larger, mobile filling station that can be brought to events on campus such as conferences and student orientation.

Much like SENSSA’s campaign, students had positive reactions to the fill stations.

“Students love the machines,” said  Office of Sustainability Waste Prevention Co-ordinator Monica Enns “When one is broken, I hear about it right away.”

While Chavez-Ortiz said he sees completely ridding the U of S campus of bottled water as a viable goal, the campaign has not been without its obstacles and detractors.

“To ban bottled water, you’re going to drink more pop,
so you’re not really reducing any plastic there.”

-Monica Enns, Waste Prevention Co-ordinator

“There’s plastic everywhere you look,” Enns said. “I think reduction is a much more realistic goal.”

The USSU has succeeded in removing bottled water from all vending machines in Place Riel, but it is still widely available on campus in retail outlets and in other vending machines.

One of the biggest obstacles to banning bottled water from campus would be getting the university’s various retail outlets, such as Mac’s Convenience Store in Lower Place Riel, on board with the campaign. The issue previously went before student council, but it was decided that the USSU did not have the authority to impose a ban on retail outlets on campus.

The USSU “has tenants in Lower Place and we own Louis’; we can’t just tell them to ban bottled water because of the leases,” said Abouhamra.

Critics of the 2009 Better than Bottled campaign initially voiced concerns that banning the sale of bottled water on campus infringed on their right as consumers to buy what they want.

Another criticism of the proposed ban is that it would lead to an increase in students choosing unhealthy bottled beverages, such as soft drinks and sports beverages, if bottled water were to become unavailable.

“People want a quick drink. If they’re at a vending machine, they’re going to get something,” Rita Hanoski, Student Health Office health education coordinator, said.

Soft drinks and sports beverages can have as much as one teaspoon of sugar per ounce of liquid. Excessive sugar consumption is widely known to lead to obesity, which in turn can lead to a number of health issues including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

A further concern is that if bottled beverages other than water remain available on campus, there would be little or no reduction in the amount of plastic waste generated by the university community.

“To ban bottled water, you’re going to drink more pop, so you’re not really reducing any plastic there,” Enns said.

Enns did not, however, go as far as saying that an outright ban on the sale of bottled beverages on campus would be necessary or practical. Hanoski on the other hand, went a step further.

Hanoski said banning the sale of all bottled beverages on campus would be good for both environmental and public health reasons, and added that if their sale is to continue that the price of unhealthy options should be raised to discourage their consumption.

If the campaign is successful, the U of S would not be the first Canadian university to ban the sale of bottled water. The University of Manitoba was the first to do so in 2009, followed by several others including the University of Ottawa  in the same year, Queens University in 2011 and the University of Toronto — Canada’s largest university — in 2012.

“The move away from bottled water sales illustrates the university’s commitment to sustainability as well as the power of student engagement. This ban shows just how important our students are in driving positive change,” said a U of T official in a 2012 press release following the ban.

In 2012, the U of S ranked near the bottom of Canadian universities on a national sustainability report card. The U of S received a “C plus” grade. Only three other schools received the same grade or lower.

But with initiatives such as SENSSA’s campaign and the Office of Sustainability’s retrofits to water fountains, Enns said she feels the university is making positive changes and that awareness is the key.

“You want to be a green university,” Enns said. “That’s our job and I think we’re doing a great job.”

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