Living in the Hudson Valley, you probably don’t think much about where your water comes from. The Hudson River has you covered at home, and water bottles are readily available at any convenience store. It seems contradictory that this community is full of water, yet Poland Spring, Dasani, and countless other bottled water brands are widely consumed.
Marist College’s Campus Sustainability Advisory Committee (CSAC) is looking to change this. The committee was started in 2007, commissioned by President Murray in order to, as co chair Steve Sansola puts it, “reduce costs, create efficiencies, and preserve resources” both on and off campus. You can thank them for suggesting the eco-friendly roof on top of Hancock that you probably heard about during your first campus tour, and for the red metal water bottle that you got if you were a freshman this year or last. Sansola was approached by committee member William Vrachopolous this year about the Take Back the Tap movement, which encourages students to drink tap water rather than buy water bottles. In order to do this, Vrachopolous plans on “petitioning students to tell SGA that we want to retrofit water fountains with water bottle filling stations, and have SPC stop providing bottled water at events.” Although he and Sansola understand that a full ban of water bottles may be unreasonable, they aim to gradually increase practices that promote sustainability. The only school that Sansola could name with a full water bottle ban in effect is the University of Vermont, which took five years to enact this policy.
But why ban water bottles? A decrease in water bottle consumption would fulfill all three of Sansola’s goals. The 2009 documentary “Tapped” reveals the practices of corporations such as Nestle, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola use to obtain water for their bottled water brands. Particularly it focuses on Maine, where Poland Spring is produced, but these practices are implemented all over the country. These corporations take advantage of antiquated groundwater laws where anyone with a pump is allowed to use the water, and buy land without consent from the towns from which they mine water. Similar situations occur with the oil refineries that make the petrochemical plastic for the water bottles. According to one person in the documentary, “the water belongs to the people and the town gets nothing.” Additionally, the bottles used contain Bisphenol A (BPA), which has been proven to cause cancer and other health issues. BPAs have long been under fire by environmental groups; when I called the Brita sales office, the automated phone directory assured me that Brita products contained no BPAs. In “Tapped,” when an FDA representative was asked about BPAs, Mike Herndon, an FDA press officer, interrupted saying, “If I’d have known you were going to talk about that, I wouldn’t have given you the interview.”
The water bottle business is worth about $800 billion dollars. Nestle pays between 6-11 cents per gallon, while water bottles are sold at huge varying markups, 1,900 times the cost of tap water. For comparison, Poughkeepsie water plant administrator Randy J. Alstadt said that the plant pays a cent to filter 1,000 gallons. When asked if water filtered by the plant was cleaner than bottled water he replied, “Depends what you call clean;” because every water supply contains different types of contaminants. However, “Tapped” points out that bottled water produced and sold within a state, which accounts for 60-70% of bottled water, is not subjected to the rigorous filtration processes that municipal water plants practice. Poughkeepsie’s water treatment has a publicly available annual report on water conditions, and staff is constantly vigilant while looking for contaminants. The 2012 annual report cited a whopping 36,350 tests to ensure water quality. Despite the Hudson River’s pervasive pollution issue, Alstadt said that the system of filtration is thorough enough that there is little to no chance of contaminants reaching people’s homes as a result of plant practices. Another advantage is the vastness of the Hudson River; such a large body of water is difficult to thoroughly contaminate. Although there was E. coli reported in the City of Poughkeepsie’s water this summer, Alstadt explained that this was a result of a warm-blooded animal contaminant, it was eliminated immediately, and that he had never seen a similar issue as administrator. Ultimately the plant’s goal is to create pathogen-free water that looks healthy.
For consumers still concerned about tap water quality, home filtration products from companies such as Brita, a German company founded in 1966, are becoming increasingly popular. Brita products use a simple carbon filtration system to reduce the taste and odor of the chlorine commonly used to purify municipal water supplies. Brita sales representative Amy had no information on campus water bottle bans’ relation to Brita products, but Brita’s Filter for Good program echoes many of the ideas found in Take Back the Tap. Lindsay, another sales representative, pointed out that Brita products reduce the amount of plastic bottles found in landfills. Unfortunately, neither sales representative could direct me to any higher-ups in the company, but the Brita website provides a large amount of information on the products. Filter for Good claims to have saved 436,518,830 plastic water bottles from ending up in landfills. Additionally, Lindsay brought up the point that “when you purchase [a Brita product], you’ll be able to tell what it removes,” which assures the consumer that their water is clean. Using a Brita bottle and pitcher rather than buying water bottles cuts costs, which is essential for college students on a budget. Also, Brita-filtered water tastes crisp and fresh.
When Vrachopolous was asked why took up the cause to ban water bottles, he replied, “I think it’s dumb that our most essential resource has been privatized and is being sold back to us. Also, the environmental effects are devastating.” Sansola emphasized the importance of young people’s awareness of their capacity to create change; “The way to make this happen is students.”
If you are interested in becoming involved with CSAC, please contact a member.