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College campuses go bottle-free; tap water hailed as resource-saving alternative

  • Four water bottles in a row

    Four water bottles in a row Purchase photo reprints »

  • Four water bottles in a row

    Four water bottles in a row Purchase photo reprints »

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a customer takes a bottle of water off a store shelf in Jackson, Miss. As sugary drinks come under fire for fueling obesity rates, people are increasingly reaching for bottled water as a healthier, relatively affordable alternative. Already, bottled water has surged past juice, milk and beer in terms of per capita consumption. The result is that bottled water is slowly closing the gap for the No. 1 spot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

    In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a customer takes a bottle of water off a store shelf in Jackson, Miss. As sugary drinks come under fire for fueling obesity rates, people are increasingly reaching for bottled water as a healthier, relatively affordable alternative. Already, bottled water has surged past juice, milk and beer in terms of per capita consumption. The result is that bottled water is slowly closing the gap for the No. 1 spot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Purchase photo reprints »

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a customer takes a bottle of water off a store shelf in Jackson, Miss. As sugary drinks come under fire for fueling obesity rates, people are increasingly reaching for bottled water as a healthier, relatively affordable alternative. Already, bottled water has surged past juice, milk and beer in terms of per capita consumption. The result is that bottled water is slowly closing the gap for the No. 1 spot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

    In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a customer takes a bottle of water off a store shelf in Jackson, Miss. As sugary drinks come under fire for fueling obesity rates, people are increasingly reaching for bottled water as a healthier, relatively affordable alternative. Already, bottled water has surged past juice, milk and beer in terms of per capita consumption. The result is that bottled water is slowly closing the gap for the No. 1 spot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Four water bottles in a row
  • Four water bottles in a row
  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a customer takes a bottle of water off a store shelf in Jackson, Miss. As sugary drinks come under fire for fueling obesity rates, people are increasingly reaching for bottled water as a healthier, relatively affordable alternative. Already, bottled water has surged past juice, milk and beer in terms of per capita consumption. The result is that bottled water is slowly closing the gap for the No. 1 spot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a customer takes a bottle of water off a store shelf in Jackson, Miss. As sugary drinks come under fire for fueling obesity rates, people are increasingly reaching for bottled water as a healthier, relatively affordable alternative. Already, bottled water has surged past juice, milk and beer in terms of per capita consumption. The result is that bottled water is slowly closing the gap for the No. 1 spot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Citing public health, environmental concerns and the human right to water, colleges around the country are cutting down on the sale and distribution of bottled water on their campuses. This spring, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges were among a handful in the U.S. celebrating commencements without bottled water.

For Mount Holyoke, that meant providing reusable water bottles filled with tap water to faculty, staff, seniors and guests who would have once received bottled water.

Becca Neubardt graduated from Mount Holyoke in May and helped organize the college’s commencement. She said that normally there would be a single-use water bottle and a commencement program placed on every graduate’s seat and on every seat on stage in the Richard Glenn Gettell Amphitheater, where commencement is held.

“So you see this image of a sea of bottled water,” she said in a phone interview. “We changed that image. ... It was pretty amazing for me to process into the amphitheater and see this sea of blue (reusable) bottles,” Neubardt said.

Bottled-water-free commencements bring visibility to institutions that are phasing out bottled water, Grace Morris, a campaign organizer with Corporate Accountability International, said in a phone interview. The nonprofit organization’s Think Outside the Bottle campaign works with individuals, organizations, businesses, institutions and state and local governments to decrease bottled water use.

After interning with Corporate Accountability International last summer, Neubardt became a regional student organizer for the Think Outside the Bottle campaign when she returned to Mount Holyoke in September 2012. She and other Mount Holyoke students have collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition urging President Lynn Pasquerella to make the college bottled-water-free.

Students worked with Mount Holyoke’s dining services to remove bottled water from one of the college’s to-go dining halls. That policy change alone reduced the amount of bottled water sold on campus by 25 percent, Neubardt said.

Her group also helped install 20 hydration stations across campus that dispense filtered water into reusable containers, and they can be retrofitted to existing water fountains. The idea, Neubardt said, is to increase the campus community’s access to tap water.

Both Neubardt and Morris stressed the public health benefits of choosing tap over bottled water. They want to challenge industry marketing that makes bottled water seem cleaner or purer than tap. This message is misleading, they said, because bottled water is often at least partially sourced from municipal water supplies. Further, bottled water is not as highly regulated as tap water, “so you don’t know what’s in your water when you’re drinking bottled water,” Neubardt said.

Beth Hooker, the sustainability initiative director at Hampshire College, agreed. “Why should we pay for bottled water to be shipped here when we already have really good water right here?” she said.

Hampshire stopped selling or distributing bottled water last fall after New Leaf, a student environmental activist organization, wrote a proposal to ban the sale of bottled water on campus.

Last summer, hydrology professor Christina Cianfrani tested samples from eight taps in major buildings on campus and found that water quality on campus is “excellent,” Hooker said.

In the fall, a chemistry class led by professor Dula Amarasiriwardena analyzed water at all the hydration stations on campus. Sustainability intern Josh Reynolds made posters detailing their findings to post at each station.

Since Hampshire had already stopped distributing bottled water, holding a bottled-water-free commencement ceremony this year was simply a matter of course. Instead of water bottles, the college provided water dispensers and compostable cups, Hooker said.

Loyola University Chicago, Stonehill College, Brown University, Macalester College, the College of St. Benedict, and Wesleyan University also held bottled-water-free commencements this year, according to Corporate Accountability International. Morris said she has noticed a growing trend of U.S. colleges and universities reducing bottled water sale and distribution on their campuses.

According to materials Morris provided, 15 to 20 schools have bottled-water-free policies, including Hampshire. Another dozen have policies that eliminate bottled water from specific areas on campus, Smith College and Mount Holyoke among them. And at least 40 schools around the country have active campaigns to reduce bottled water use, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Amherst College has also taken steps to reduce bottled water use on campus, according to the college’s website.

Since graduating, Neubardt has returned to Corporate Accountability International as a senior intern on the Think Outside the Bottle campaign. She said other college students have reached out to her via social media to ask about starting initiatives on their campuses.

“Every year there are more schools that are hopping on this bandwagon and starting campaigns to go bottled-water free,” she said.

“At this point the conversation has shifted,” Morris said.

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