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Becca Neubardt: Thinking outside the water bottle

It is no coincidence that water bottling and privatization is a $400 billion a year industry, the third-largest in the world behind electricity and oil.

Corporations like Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are profiting from our most essential natural resource, to the economic, social, environmental and physical detriment of billions around the world, especially women and children.

The problem is a daunting one, for certain. What can a single individual — or a single college student — possibly do to help?

Recognizing this impending global water crisis and its corporate perpetrators inspired me last fall to recruit a group of committed student activists at Mount Holyoke College to challenge the bottled water industry’s abuses.

We aligned ourselves with the national Think Outside the Bottle student network to work for a reinvestment in healthy public water systems, organizing a campus Think Outside the Bottle campaign to protect the human right to water and to reduce Mount Holyoke’s own environmental footprint.

We’ve spent the past academic year educating the campus community about water issues through tap water challenges (blind taste tests), film screenings, educational water bottle sculptures and classroom discussions. In the process, we’ve collected signatures from half of the student body to petition the college to become a bottled water-free environment.

In our small corner of South Hadley, our efforts to create change have paid off: Mount Holyoke has, to date, installed 24 new hydration stations across campus, giving students the means to increase their use of reusable bottles and allowing for bottled water-free events. Think Outside the Bottle has collaborated with administrators and staff to reduce the bottled water sold on campus by 25 percent, with additional reductions planned for the fall semester. The college’s Sustainable Water Committee, established in January, has made it possible for the college to host a bottled water-free commencement ceremony this May.

Instead of distributing bottled water to the 3,500 family members and friends who will come to campus to celebrate the accomplishments of graduating seniors, our visitors will quench their thirst with South Hadley’s finest tap water contained in complimentary reusable bottles.

Small steps in a world context, yes.

But our goal is not only to change our own campus culture; we’re working to increase awareness of global water issues beyond our college’s gates. We know the families of this year’s graduates will wonder why they weren’t given the standard bottled water at the biggest event of the year before they return to their communities — and that’s a start.

What can you do in your community? Stop purchasing bottled water for you and your family, and inspire friends and family to take a tap water pledge along with you. Since the price of bottled water is about 1,000 times that of water from the tap, a reusable bottle pays for itself in no time.

Educate yourself by seeing films like “Tapped,” “Flow” and “The Story of Bottled Water.” Take a tour of your local public water plant.

Talk to people at your school, your place of business or the local state park about going bottled water-free.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can start with one person. If not you, who? If not now, when?

Becca Neubardt is a graduating senior at Mount Holyoke College.

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