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Student movement seeks to ban sale of bottled water on campuses

Bottled water is being booted from a growing number of colleges across the country – and it has caught the industry’s attention.

Aided and informed by non-profit organizations such as Ban the Bottle and Corporate Accountability International with its “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign, student activists at more than 20 colleges around the country have successfully gotten complete or partial bans on bottled water sales at their campuses, Corporate Accountability International told National Public Radio in a Feb. 12 article on the movement.

Included in the list of schools active on the issue are Ivy League universities such as Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth, according to the universities’ respective websites. In an article published Feb. 1, the international news agency, Reuters, reported 12 U.S. colleges have implemented campus-wide bans of bottled water sales in the past three years.

The largest of these schools was the University of Vermont, which announced at the end of January the campus will be eliminating bottled water sales by January 2013. They will end its contract with Coca-Cola of Northern New England in July, according to the university’s website. University of Vermont plans to retrofit all of its drinking fountains on campus with water bottle refilling stations to increase students’ access to the public supply.

The movement is not sitting well with those connected to the bottled water industry The International Bottled Water Association released a YouTube video on Feb. 1 this year in retaliation to the movement.

In the video the association argues bottled water: is a healthy alternative to sugared drinks, is the most recycled packaged beverage on the market, uses less plastic than other packaged drinks and has the lowest water and carbon footprint of any packaged beverage on the market.

The video also argues that bottled water: is “stringently regulated by the FDA,” is held to a “higher safety standard than tap water” and accounts for only 0.03 percent of U.S. waste, citing statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nick Hennessy, director of Bowling Green State University’s Office of Sustainability, said the main motivations of the bottled water opposition movement are environmental concerns regarding waste and energy consumption during shipping and manufacturing.

Hennessy cautioned against and refuted certain claims the association makes in the video. The association’s financial stake in the issue, he said, warrants a careful scrutiny of the accuracy and honesty of its message.

“They’re going to hit the information that’s most important to them,” he said. “The video said bottled water is stringently regulated by the FDA, well who regulates [tap] water? The EPA. And who has the more stringent regulations? That’s not a real tough question to answer. … Public water has to meet extremely rigorous standards.”

The video takes a slight stab at the movement’s credibility, placing the bottled water issue in context with past issues addressed by student activism, such as civil rights, labor rights, free speech and peace movements. Bottled water, the video argues, is a trifling matter unworthy of student activism’s weight.

“Hearing that come from them specifically is very belittling,” University Environmental Action Group President Michelle Schultheis said. “It’s a corporate way of thinking and it takes activists to step up to that level.”

Though the EAG has not attempted to promote a bottled water ban at the University, Schultheis said she supports the movement and is considering a plan to incorporate it into the student organization’s goals. EAG, she said, would use educational activities such as blind taste tests of bottled and tap water to garner student support.

“The movement itself is great,” she said. “It’s great they’re taking the initiative that extra step further. I could see Bowling Green doing that in maybe a year or so.”

According to University Director of Business Operations Andy Grant, the University is currently fixed into a contract with Coca-Cola that began May 16, 2007 and runs through May 15, 2014, with an optional three-year extension of term. Any bottled-water contract exemptions or sales terminations would have to be implemented, not negotiated, outside of the contract term.

”If there is something that students have concerns with,” Grant wrote in an email, “it should be brought to the attention of the appropriate individuals and begin having a dialogue with the appropriate internal and external contacts.”

Though there has been no attempt at the University to ban bottled water sales, some students on campus are working to educate others on the issue and promote bottled water alternatives. The student organization Net Impact, according to Schultheis, will show the anti-bottled-water documentary “Tapped” in the Union theater on March 20 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Junior Human Development and Family Studies major, Morgan Daniel, submitted a Green Fund request to the University on February 18 for $750 to fund retrofits on two campus water fountains that would equip the fountains with fast, easy-to-use water bottle refilling stations similar to those being installed at University of Vermont.

“The idea with this is that we test out two units and see how it goes, see how students react to them” Daniel said. “Are they being used effectively? Do we have any physical problems with the units? Hopefully if we get a good response, then it will be something I continue to propose.”

Daniel said she will not know for another few weeks whether her request will be granted.

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