Manufacturers say university bottled water bans restrict students’ freedom of choice

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Bottled water manufacturers say student protestors should tackle bigger problems than banning their product on college campuses.

Photo: stevendepolo (Flickr)

Some 20 North American universities and colleges have banned the sale of bottled water on campus in the last three years. At least five of those campuses are in Great Lakes region where the battle for water involves concern for the environment, cost and thoroughness of safety regulations.

But the International Bottled Water Association says activists are “flat out wrong.”

A significant item up for debate is whether tap water is more regulated than bottled water.

“This is simply untrue,” said Chris Hogan, the vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.

The College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, one of the schools to ban bottled water, and state agencies like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, say that tap water is more regulated than bottled water.

“There are more regulations that apply to community water supplies in terms of testing and monitoring than apply to bottled water,” said Bryce Feighner, chief of the Office of Environmental Assistance at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Hogan says the facts are being misinterpreted.

“Bottled water is regulated for different things than tap water,” Hogan said. “Not necessarily that one is more regulated than the other but rather they are regulated for different things and that stems from the idea that the transportation systems are extremely different.”

Tap water is delivered by a public water system. Bottled water is delivered in a sealed container.

For this reason, tap water may be tested for a particular substance that bottled water is not, Hogan said. An example is chlorine. It can exist in tap water because it is used to maintain water quality in public water systems, however it is not used in bottled water because there is no way for chlorine to get into the bottle, according to Hogan.

Drinking water from the tap or a bottle is usually safe and regulatory requirements for both tap water and bottled water provide consumers with clean, safe drinking water, according to the Drinking Water Research Foundation in Virginia.

“As an industry we don’t see this as a bottled water versus tap water thing,” Hogan said. “Both are important.”

What alarms Hogan is that campuses are restricting a choice.

“Colleges have traditionally encouraged students to think independently, learn about an issue and all sides, to value people’s ability to make choices — what this is doing is the opposite of all those things,” Hogan said.

The International Bottled Water Association released this video in February in response to campuses banning bottled water. It highlights what Hogan describes as the irony of banning the healthiest beverage consumers can drink.

Great Lakes campuses that have banned the sale of bottled water include, Oberlin College in Ohio, University of Ottawa in Ontario, Upstate Medical University in New York, University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point and College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, according to the schools’ websites.

College of Saint Benedict was the first college to ban bottled water in Minnesota. The transition has been relatively easy and has had a lot of student and faculty support since the ban six months ago, said Judy Purman, the sustainability director at the College of Saint Benedict.

Her school banned bottled water in 2011 because its research showed tap water was more closely regulated than bottled water, Purman said. This information pushed a lot of the student body to support the recent ban.

Other reasons included the cost of purchasing the bottled water and the amount of energy used to manufacture and transport the bottles.

But the biggest reason for the ban, according to Purman: Access to water is a human right.

“We should not be profiting from the sale of something that should be available to everyone,” Purman said. “In Minnesota, we have no shortage of water and the water we do have access to is clean, so by the mission of the institution it doesn’t make sense for us to be spending money or making a profit on something that we consider a human right.”

The College of Saint Benedict has approximately 2,000 students. It was easy to replace bottled water with 39 drinking fountains with nozzles designed for filling water bottles.

Will larger schools follow?

Another Great Lakes school, Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., won’t be banning the sale of bottled water on campus anytime soon.

Michigan State’s approach to campus sustainability has never been to “ban,” said Jennifer Battle, the assistant director for campus sustainability at Michigan State.

“People don’t really respond well when you tell them they can’t do something so our approach is more on the education side,” Battle said. “That way, long term, people understand that it’s more of the why. If you just tell people they can’t do something, that’s really not achieving what you want, which is a true understanding and critical thinking about what’s happening with this waste, whether it’s a water bottle or piece of paper.”

“The implicit message is, we want to restrict choice and we’re going to restrict one of the healthiest choices you can have,” Hogan said. “We’re not restricting sodas or fruit juices that are high in calories, we are restricting access to water and if you don’t have a reusable container with you at all times, you’re out of luck and that’s really a disturbing message.”

Bottled water sales are increasing across the U.S. and the International Bottled Water Association does not think the recent bans will harm business. Hogan said that he believes the problem lies in the perceived battle that is choosing between tap water and bottled water.

“You’re welcome to drink tap water all you want, I drink it,” Hogan said. “It’s not an if-or situation. As an industry, we believe in people being able to make choices about what they want to drink, including bottled water, tap water or anything else.”

14 thoughts on “Manufacturers say university bottled water bans restrict students’ freedom of choice

  1. In answer to many of the comments made by those that can’t read critically the SALE of bottled water is prohibited on campus, not the POSSESSION of bottled water. Learn to read before you comment, it sounds like you’re threatened by your own imagination.

  2. Pingback: Another college bans bottled water sales | Great Lakes Echo

  3. We use alkalized, izinoed water. We buy it from someone who owns a machine, but plan to buy our own soon. It’s the best tasting water I’ve ever had!I agree with Dottie about Stanwood water. Aside from it tasting awful, I drank Stanwood tap water for just a few weeks and got an eczema-like rash on my wrists. (I’ve never had that problem before). After a few days of drinking our new water, the rash was gone.

  4. Well said, John. That’s the point I was trying to make. Most bottled water is simply municipal tap water. It is regulated. So that argument for banning it’s sale on campuses is void. As for the argument that plastic containers A, fill up landfills and/or B, have toxins, that argument also is void unless they ban all beverages sold in plastic containers. I typically carry a reusable bottle of water with me, but that’s because I’m a cheapskate and don’t like paying more for water than I pay for an equivalent amount of gasoline. Still, there are times I’m thirsty and don’t have the option of carrying a bottle of water everywhere I go, and since I try not to drink soda very often, I’ll buy a bottle of water … yes, merely for convenience. It’s not a crime any more than buying any beverage in a plastic container. People need to get off their holier-than-thou crusade.

  5. According to the article “For this reason, tap water may be tested for a particular substance that bottled water is not, Hogan said. An example is chlorine. It can exist in tap water because it is used to maintain water quality in public water systems, however it is not used in bottled water because there is no way for chlorine to get into the bottle, according to Hogan.”

    Since quite a lot of bottled water is simply tap water that has been sealed in a plastic bottle, it’s nonsense to claim that there is “no way for chlorine to get into the bottle”. If chlorine was used to treat the tap water, it’s almost certain to still be there. Perhaps manufacturers could argue that it’s redundant to test municipal water that was previously tested. This argument might make sense if the label stated that “This water was tested by the City of XXX water system, who provided the water in this bottle”.

    However, any such labeling would debunk the mythology that water hermetically sealed in plastic bottles is safer simply because it comes in a container and is sold at an inflated price.

  6. What the industry shills at the IBWA never mention in regards to safety is that if bottled water is not shipped across state lines it is not subjected to inspection by the FDA.

  7. This is why you should avoid bottled water;

    PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): AVOID
    Common Uses: Soda Bottles, Water Bottles, Cooking Oil Bottles
    Concerns: Can leach antimony and phthalates.

    HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): SAFER
    Common Uses: Milk Jugs, Plastic Bags, Yogurt Cups

    PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, aka Vinyl): AVOID
    Common Uses: Condiment Bottles, Cling Wrap, Teething Rings, Toys, Shower Curtains
    Concerns: Can leach lead and phthalates among other things. Can also off-gas toxic chemicals.

    LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene): SAFER
    Common Uses: Produce Bags, Food Storage Containers

    PP (Polypropylene): SAFER
    Common Uses: Bottle Caps, Storage Containers, Dishware

    PS (Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam): AVOID
    Common Uses: Meat Trays, Foam Food Containers & Cups
    Concerns: Can leach carcinogenic styrene and estrogenic alkylphenols

    PC (Polycarbonate): AVOID – can leach Bisphenol-A (BPA). It also includes ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), SAN (Styrene Acrylonitrile), Acrylic, and Polyamide. These plastics can be a safer option because they are typically very durable and resistant to high heat resulting in less leaching. Their drawbacks are that they are not typically recyclable and some need additional safety research. New plant-based, biodegradable plastics like PLA (Polylactic Acid) also fall into the #7 category.

  8. I can understand not liking bottle water because of the plastic that winds up in landfills, but not about the water quality, and the protests against bottled water on campus is just STUPID. Bottled water is not less regulated regardless if it is “spring water” or from municipal water. “Spring Water” is from wells, and not surface water, so it is really a marketing misnomer.

    Bottled water is so much more healthy than any soft drink, and the soft drink containers end up in land fills, or waste energy even if the cans are recycled. If you want to ban bottled water, ban all throw-away containers, not the healthiest one of all.

    These colleges are producing students who will protest anything, whether it makes sense or not. Instead, the students should learn to think for themselves, not run with a protest mob.

  9. In all the history of single serving size bottled water, I have never understood the rationale. Just fill a reusable “canteen” from the tap and carry it. The waste of bottling tap or “spring” water in 12,16 or 20 Oz. disposable plastic bottles is just beyond understanding. It is the epitome of American waste, greed and laziness. We have Nestle Co. pumping groundwater in MI to fill billions of little bottles to sell world wide, all the while depleting groundwater supplies necessary to recharge lakes, streams and domestic wells. All those trillions of little bottles going to landfills and becoming litter are made from petroleum, and we are paying $4 a gallon for gas. Were in the hell has common sense gone in contemporary America? Freedom of choice, hell no. Freedom to make scads of money catering to the societal insanity of America.

  10. Pingback: University bans on bottled water restrict student freedom of choice? | The Drinking Water Advisor

  11. Freedom of choice is not a right. University students don’t have “freedom of choice” of alcoholic beverages, organic produce in the cafeteria, 1,032 flavors of ice cream, or 3rd trimester abortions. They choose from what the university offers. If they can’t find something on campus, they can go off-campus and obtain it if they are able. Whining corporate sociopaths need to shut up.

  12. Well, since most bottled water is simply municipal tap water that maybe is run through an additional filtration system, it’s not true that bottled water is less regulated – in most cases. The difference is when a person specifically buys spring water, not “filtered” or “distilled” water. Spring water bottling companies a definitely less regulated than tap water. Most of the leading bottled water brands, like Aquafina and Dasani, are produced by soft drink makers (Pepsi Cola, Coca-Cola) and is the same water they use to make the soda pop. Michigan State’s approach seems much more reasonable than an outright ban. (They will sell Pepsis in plastic bottles but not Aquafina, which is made by Pepsi? Does that even make sense?)

  13. What about the freedom to choose to ban a wasteful product? Isn’t that freedom important, too?

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