WASHINGTON – Like many students at the University of Maryland, College Park, freshman Sree Sinha hopes for a better future.
On Feb. 9, Sinha and other members of UMCP’s Residence Hall Association Sustainability Committee hosted Ban the Bottle, an event created to spread the word about environmental damages caused by plastic water bottles.
The first 100 people to attend received free reusable water bottles, and the event was anchored by a screening of the 2009 anti-water bottle documentary “Tapped.”
If all goes according to plan, Sinha says, increased student awareness will motivate her school and others to ban sales of America’s second-most-popular bottled beverage in the next decade or two.
But many colleges and universities in Maryland say they have no intention of “banning the bottle” any time soon.
Ban the Bottle, Take Back the Tap, and Unbottle It are nationwide campaigns that emerged in the past several years whose doctrines resonate with environmentally aware college students.
The movement is still in its infancy, but some schools have already begun experimenting with water bottle bans.
Washington University in St. Louis became the first American college to stop selling bottled water in February 2009, according to published reports at the time. In the years that followed, more than a dozen small colleges and universities across the country have halted water sales, including the University of Vermont earlier this month.
Advocates of bottled water bans say such practices make sense environmentally and economically.
Only one in four plastic water bottles used nationwide are recycled, according to Food and Water Watch, the environmental organization that started Take Back the Tap. The rest — roughly 2 million tons per year — ends up in U.S. landfills.
Additionally, buyers can end up paying thousands of times more money per gallon for bottled water than tap water.
Bottled water ranges anywhere from $0.89 to $8.26 per gallon, according to FWW estimates. A gallon of tap water costs, on average, $.002 per gallon.
In comparison, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline in Maryland is $3.60.
So why haven’t Maryland colleges and universities replaced bottled water with other, greener alternatives?
“It’s not a simple answer,” according to Jack Nye, Towson’s sustainability director.
Lawrence Gingerich, sustainability and safety coordinator at Frostburg State University, said that insufficient funding is a major barrier to his university’s program.
Banning the sale of plastic water bottles on campus would require funding for additional water fountains and “filling stations” to refill reusable bottles. Amid a lingering national recession, many college sustainability programs simply don’t have the cash for such improvements.
Complicating the problems are colleges’ pre-existing contracts with beverage companies like The Coca-Cola Co., which sells Dasani water, and PepsiCo, which markets Aquafina water, Nye said.
For example, UMCP is currently tied into a multi-million dollar deal with PepsiCo. Many of UMCP’s vending machines on campus offer bottled Aquafina along with other Pepsi products.
Ending the sale of water bottles campus-wide wouldn’t just impact students and faculty, but athletes and visitors to athletic facilities, like UMCP’s Comcast Center and Byrd Stadium. Allowing spectators to bring their own drinks would make it much harder for stadium officials to enforce the no-alcohol policies already in place.
Unsurprisingly, water bottle bans have not caught on with bottled water advocates.
“A ban on the sale of bottled water on college campuses restricts freedom of choice for students to choose one of the healthiest beverages available in vending machines,” Chris Hogan, vice president of communications at the International Bottled Water Association said in a news release.
“These activist students fail to understand that bottled water is most often an alternative to other packaged drinks, which are often less healthy, and is not necessarily an alternative to tap water,” Hogan said.
There’s also debate about how much water bottle bans could actually accomplish.
In 2011, UMCP recycled 1,923 tons of paper fibers, plastics, metals, and other materials in a single-stream system, according to UMCP recycling coordinator Bill Guididas. But since single-stream recycling mixes materials together rather than sorting them, there’s no way to determine exactly how many water bottles are being recycled.
“The EPA has calculated that plastic bottled water containers make up just .03 percent of the U.S. waste stream. So, getting rid of bottled water on campus will not make a significant improvement to waste issues,” Hogan said.
And Davis Bookhart, the director of sustainability at Johns Hopkins University, learned firsthand of the safety hazards involved with banning water bottles.
Bookhart recalled an attempt to block plastic water bottle sales at a Johns Hopkins commencement ceremony two years ago. The unanticipated 90 degree heat on that sunny May day resulted in several people fainting, as many people in the stands did not have easy access to the water bottle filling stations provided.
In response, Bookhart and other campus sustainability leaders have been searching for less expensive, safer ways to reduce campus water bottle usage.
“Banning water bottles isn’t very realistic,” said Scott Hardy, department chairman of environmental studies at McDaniel College. “But putting in place limits that reduce usage makes a ton of sense.”
At McDaniel and Johns Hopkins, efforts have been put in place to serve only tap water at campus meetings to reduce water bottle usage. UMCP students convinced their undergraduate and graduate student governments to follow suit.
Johns Hopkins and Towson University have implemented programs to distribute recyclable, reusable water bottles among their student body to encourage, not enforce, more eco-friendly drinking habits.
“We’ve taken more of a voluntary approach,” said Nye of Towson.
And many schools, including UMCP, Towson and Johns Hopkins, are in the process of installing water bottle filling stations in main campus buildings and dorms.
So far, Goucher College has taken the biggest step toward banning water bottles by ending sales in campus dining halls and eateries. Water bottles are still sold in other areas in campus, however.
Only time will tell whether or not Maryland schools will ever completely ban bottled water sales, but in the meantime, campus sustainability leaders and students are doing their best to provide a steady “flow” of information about plastic water bottles.
“We live in a fantastic area where our supplies are very clean and water is readily available for free,” Sree Sinha said at Ban the Bottle. “It’s tasty and healthy, so why shouldn’t we drink it?”