Colleges shun bottled water in a jab at $22 billion industry

2012-03-11T12:00:00Z Colleges shun bottled water in a jab at $22 billion industryBy ANDREW THEEN / Bloomberg News
March 11, 2012 12:00 pm  • 

NEW YORK — Bottled water is coming under attack on college campuses.

More than 90 schools, among them Brown and Harvard, are banning the sale or restricting the use of plastic water bottles, unnerving the $22 billion retail packaged-water industry in the United States.

Freshmen at colleges nationwide are being greeted with stainless-steel bottles in their welcome packs and encouraged to use hydration stations where free, filtered water is available. Brown, which once sold about 320,000 bottles of water a year in vending machines and campus stores, ended sales in dining halls in 2010. Harvard and Dartmouth College are installing hydration stations in new buildings to reduce trash.

"The product just doesn't make common sense," said Sarah Alexander, 20, an environmental-studies major at Hanover, N.H.-based Dartmouth. "Companies are taking something that is freely accessible to everyone on the Dartmouth campus, packaging it in a non-reusable container and then selling it under the pretense that it is somehow better than tap water."

In response to the growing movement, the water industry released a video on YouTube last month poking fun at "Ban the Bottle," an organization that advocates banning one-time-use plastic water bottles. The spot, which features "Star Wars"-like music and flashbacks of antiwar demonstrations, says bottled water is a safe, convenient product that is "one of the healthiest drinks on the shelf" and that its packaging is recyclable.

There "are really serious issues over here, and now you're dealing with bottled water?" Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association, based in Alexandria, Va., said. While "there are anti- bottled-water groups going from campus to campus," Doss said he doesn't consider it "a big threat" at this point.

More than 9 billion gallons of bottled water were sold domestically last year, and the industry is growing 5.4 percent a year, according to Gary Hemphill, senior vice president of the Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York consulting firm. Sales to colleges and universities aren't tracked separately.

The bottling industry may be worried about losing brand loyalty from college kids, said Eric Meliton, an industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

"If they lose that access, yeah, you would see a big dropoff on that demographic," Meliton said. College students are "on the go, they've got backpacks and they may not choose to use bottled water."

Reducing or eliminating plastic bottled water saves students money and has the environmental benefit of reducing the need to truck bottles across the country, said Niles Barnes, project coordinator with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

"It's a really tangible, sustainable activity that students can get behind," Barnes said.

Students at Brown, in Providence, R.I., started a campaign in 2010 to reduce bottled water consumption and the school stopped selling it in dining halls that September. Brown holds about 50,000 bottles in reserve in case of a natural disaster or to distribute at graduation or other events, said Chris Powell, director of sustainable energy and environmental initiatives.

"There's an environmental impact to the waste" of bottles, Powell said. "We realized there were alternatives that we could put in place that everybody was agreeable to."

Dartmouth is trying to "shift the student culture" about purchasing bottled water, said Rosi Kerr, the school's director of sustainability. Princeton University, in Princeton, N.J., promotes a "Drink Local" initiative to reduce bottle waste.

Some departments at Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard have banned the purchase of bottled water for meetings. Cornell has a reduction campaign, as does Yale. The University of Pennsylvania encourages administrative offices to use hydration stations rather than bottled water.

"Doing nothing" as environmental groups campaigned to ban bottled water wasn't an option for the water industry, the water association's Doss said. His niece, a student at the College of Charleston, alerted him to an effort on her campus, and he said there is an "active movement" nationwide.

More than a dozen U.S. schools have campuswide bans on the sale of plastic water bottles, Barnes said.

Some colleges with a history of activism have rejected bans on packaged water. The University of California, Berkeley opted against the idea on concern it would drive students toward sweetened beverages, said Trish Ratto, a university health services official. So did Columbia, after students said they'd buy it elsewhere, according to Nilda Mesa, assistant vice president of environmental stewardship at the New York-based college.

Brown philosophy major Terrence George, 21, calls the university's policy an "unwarranted assault" on bottled water.

"The bottled water ban is downright absurd," he said. "I'm buying apple juice and tea every night instead of water. Last time I went to the dentist, I have a few more cavities than usual."

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