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College Campuses Dump Disposable Water Bottles

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Miranda Leonard

From Cornell to Stanford, college campuses across the U.S. are moving away from providing disposable plastic water bottles in vending machines, in cafeterias and during events like football games and student orientations.

To date, over a dozen colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada have campus-wide bans of the plastic bottles. A dozen more have partially halted bottle water sales to certain campus departments, and hundreds of schools have installed multiple “hydration stations”, where students and faculty can refill their own bottles. Some of the bans have resulted from student activism, while others have been a calculated effort by school administrators to save money. The bans can be tricky, however, when in conflict with exclusive beverage agreements with companies like Coke or Pepsi, who provide Dasani and Aquafina bottled waters, respectively.
In an effort to boost faltering sales, Coca-Cola launched a marketing campaign for Dasani last year featuring a PlantBottle made of 30% “plant based materials” (read: sugarcane ethanol from Brazil).  The new packaging is recyclable and provides a 25% reduction in carbon emission, compared to traditional plastic bottles. Compared to tap water, however, the new Dasani bottle still emits 2,000 times the carbon emissions, and costs 2,000 times as much. Apparently students just aren’t buying it.

One of the students organizing the bottled water ban at a liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota notes “Macalester is claiming to be this sustainable, socially aware school. So if we’re selling bottled water, what does that say?” Meanwhile, Republican students at neighboring Minnesota College have countered their college’s kibosh on bottled water by providing plastic water bottles free of charge on campus. The student group says the ban impinges upon their right to free choice. The school’s director of sustainability clarifies that the “policy does not say that students can’t have bottled water. We’re not going to sell it in the bookstore or dining facilities here and we’re not going to use college funds to purchase bottled watered [sic], but we’re not saying to students, they can’t drink bottled water, it’s their right.”

Bottled water consumption has more than doubled in past decade, from 13.4 gallons to 29.3 gallons per person from 1997 to 2007, although demand has tapered off during the past three years. Part of the ambivalence stems from realizations that most bottled water is glorified filtered tap water, as well as concerns over chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) leaching from plastic containers into liquids. In addition, more consumers are realizing that 80% of plastic water bottles end up in landfills and incinerators, adding up to tremendous amounts of waste.

Campuses are finding other ways to address sustainability issues in places of higher learning by gearing up for campus sustainability day on October 26, by helping students to organize campus food cooperatives through organizations like CoFed, and by organizing a bicycling campaign like the one promoted by the Illinois Student Environmental Coalition.

College is about the greater world around us, as well as academics. Perhaps students can help educate our larger communities about the benefits of BYO bottle.


Miranda Leonard is an MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School. She loves producing zero-waste events, especially concerts, and believes that music has the power and the potential to inspire social change. Miranda lives in the great north woods of Seattle, Washington.

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.

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