Washington University in St. Louis ends sales of bottled water

WUSTL is believed to be the first university to ban the sale and use of bottled water throughout its main campus

Faculty, students and staff on Washington University in St. Louis’ Danforth, North and West campuses no longer can find bottled water in vending machines or at most campus eateries.

Because of concerns about the environmental impact of bottled water, Washington University ended sales of the product in January (though because of contractual obligations, two venues will sell bottled water until March 15), and administrative offices no longer offer bottled water at events and meetings.

WUSTL has fielded questions from groups from other universities about how WUSTL implemented the bottled water ban.

Instead, faculty, staff, students and guests are encouraged to drink tap water and use reusable water containers.

WUSTL’s research has shown that it is the first university to ban the sale and use of bottled water throughout its main campus.

“Washington University wanted to take a visible step to show our commitment to being more environmentally friendly,” said WUSTL junior Kady McFadden, who led the student “Tap it” campaign to ban bottled water on campus.

“Bottled water is harmful in many different ways,” said McFadden, an environmental studies and political science major in Arts & Sciences. “Water is heavy, and shipping bottled water to campus releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“The plastic used to create the bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade and can’t be recycled — it can only be ‘downcycled’ to a lower-grade plastic that isn’t used for much,” she said.

High-quality tap water — St. Louis tap water was rated as best in the country by the U.S. Mayor’s Conference in 2007 — is readily available on WUSTL campuses. Nearly all campus buildings feature multiple drinking fountains, and cold-water containers can be found in central campus locations.

Reducing the use of bottled water on campus is just one of many steps WUSTL is taking to reduce its impact on the environment.

“Plastic bottled water represents significant energy and waste issues,” said Matt Malten, assistant vice chancellor for sustainability.

“National statistics show that the rate plastic bottles are recycled is low and getting lower, as more end up in landfills,” Malten said. “Members of the Washington University community all have access to healthy water from a tap, and drinking tap water eliminates the generation of solid waste and energy usage to produce and distribute bottled water.”

Washington University has been contacted by groups from other universities, which have asked for information on how WUSTL implemented the ban. In response, last Friday, Feb. 13, WUSTL hosted a conference call and fielded questions from approximately 40 members of these groups.

One point emphasized to those on the conference call with McFadden and Deborah Howard, special assistant to the executive vice chancellor for administration, was that the bottled water ban couldn’t have been implemented without the support of others on campus — especially students and Washington University Dining Services.

Students have been very supportive of the ban, McFadden said. “The majority of students had never thought about the impact of bottled water before,” McFadden said. “It’s not intuitive. But, when they read and hear about the facts, they think, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.'”

To educate students about the environmental impact of bottled water and to promote tap water, McFadden and approximately 20 students heavily involved in the “Tap it” campaign held tap-water-vs.-bottled-water taste tests and placed signs and table tents throughout campus.

In September, campaign members built a “tower of consumption” out of discarded water bottles collected from campus trashcans to show students how much waste bottled water created.

The group also is selling reusable water containers.

The ban has been in effect at most campus eateries and vending areas since January. Since then, sales of bottles water have fallen even in the areas still contractually obligated to sell bottled water, Howard said.

Some have expressed concerned that ending the sale of bottled water would cause students to purchase more high-calorie soft drinks instead. This has not occurred, Howard said.

“Sales of bottled sodas are actually down since January as well,” she said.