By Rachel Gross

Being a college student means starting to make tough decisions. But here’s one you might not expect: bottled water or tap?

Students at UC Berkeley are poised to vote next week on whether they want to be sold plastic water bottles on their own campus. On the April 5-7 student election ballot, they can check off an initiative to support phasing out the sale of bottled water and improving access to public water, including campus drinking fountains.

UC Berkeley would join an eco-trend that has swept colleges nationwide. Washington University and the University of Seattle  jumped on the bandwagon last fall and the University of Portland was the first West Coast campus to start a ban in 2010. And it’s not just universities: in 2007, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom prohibited all city departments from purchasing bottled water.

Student leaders of the movement say it’s a way for them to take charge over their consumption of a wasteful product. By reducing plastic waste on campus, a bottle ban would help the campus reach its goal of trimming waste by 75% by 2012, says UC Berkeley senior Rose Whitson, who is spearheading the effort with student senator Elliot Goldstein.

Whitson and Goldstein are working to do away with single-use plastic water bottles at UC Berkeley, starting with a student vote next week.

Whitson, an environmental science major who is “fascinated” by the ramifications of single-use plastics, heads the student Sustainability Team. She says she hopes the campaign will make students rethink their reliance on plastic bottles.

“We have so many drinking fountains on campus,” she says. “We’ve been trained to think it’s convenient, but is it really convenient to go to a store and buy a bottle of water?”

UC Berkeley has been brainstorming alternatives to single-use bottles for a while now. Two years ago, the campus started an awareness campaign called “I Heart Tap Water,” which renovated campus water fountains, installed two fast-filling “Hydration Stations” in the recreational sports facility and began selling refillable metal water bottles on campus.

By 2008-09, the campus had cut water bottle sales by 37%, to 844,152 bottles, according to the campaign. Since then, the decrease has been even more dramatic, although official numbers haven’t been released yet, says Kim La Pean, communications manager for Berkeley’s University Health Services.

Walking through campus, that shift is evident. Most students sport a Klean Canteen or other refillable bottle. Of the seven students I spoke with who had purchased single-use bottles, just one said he bought them regularly, citing convenience, while the others all said they had forgotten their reusable ones at home.

Part of the reason for putting the ban on the ballot this spring is that the campus may be re-opening negotiations with the Coca-Cola Company, UC Berkeley’s primary beverage sponsor, says Whitson. The campus’s current contract with the company (which can be viewed here) expires in August. Whitson sees this an opportunity for students to take water bottles out of the equation for future contracts.

“This is Berkeley,” she says. “We can be creative and find other things to sell that are more sustainable and have a better impact on our campus.”

As it stands, the initiative is non-binding. As Whitson puts it: “It’s more of a show of support so we can say we have students behind us. It’s a commitment to the future.” If more than half of students vote yes, she says her team will begin working with the administration to remove plastic bottles.

Some administrators, however, are skeptical. Even with the decrease, bottled water is a top-selling product on campus and a key to keeping the Coca-Cola contract, says Nadesan Permaul, Director of the ASUC Auxiliary, which oversees campus businesses. A full ban would negatively impact campus’s already strained finances and would likely jeopardize its relationship with the bottling company, he says.

“To simply stop sales on the campus will hurt the A.S.U.C. and campus funding models based on beverage revenues, and will not stop students from walking across the street and purchasing bottled water,” he wrote in an email. “I can assure you that the Campus Beverage Alliance will not be excluding bottled water in the next contract,” he added in another.

Sophomore Jonathan Asfaha says he only purchases a plastic water bottle when he forgets his canteen at home. He’ll use this one for the next couple of weeks.

According to the Coca-Cola contract, UC Berkeley receives a set fee of $550,000 a year from beverage sales. About $200,000 of that goes to the student government, which allocates funding for student groups and activities. The contract provides for campus dining and other departments to purchase 24-bottle cases of Dasani water for $10, which comes out to 42 cents per bottle. At Golden Bear Café, one of the campus’s main student eateries, that water is resold at $1.80.

Though water bottles may be a key source of campus revenue, other campuses in the system have already started phasing them out. At UC Santa Cruz, student leader Gabi Kirk has met with some success: thanks to her efforts, almost all campus dining affiliated eateries have stopped selling bottles.

Still, institutional change takes time. Unlike the majority of campuses that have already implemented a ban, Kirk points out, both Santa Cruz and Berkeley are large, sprawling public universities with many administrative actors. She faced the bureaucratic reality last semester, after garnering almost 1,500 student signatures on a petition to the UC Regents to end bottled water sales. As it turned out, it would take several months of planning and research just to gain the support of campus departments.

“So we’re not doing this huge push like, ‘you should end it tomorrow,’” she says. “Because it’s just not realistic.”

Bottled Versus Tap

Experts say UC Berkeley is uniquely positioned to make the switch off the bottle, because of the city’s top-quality tap water.

Almost all East Bay water starts as Sierra Nevada snowmelt, which flows into the Mokelumne River watershed, according to East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) water treatment information. From there, it makes its way to the Pardee Reservoir, where it is transported to cities via closed pipelines. Because of its purity, treatment is more of a “polishing process,” says Tim Pine, a campus environmental specialist who worked with EBMUD in water treatment for five years.

Treatment plants filter water through sand, remove suspended particles and aerate it to remove gases. The plants also add two chemicals: chloramine, a disinfectant, and fluoride, for dental health. EBMUD’s full 2009 quality report can be found here.

Pine, who also advised the “I Heart Tap Water” campaign, says a major challenge to getting the public to embrace tap water is the “fear factor”: the exaggerated perception that non-bottled water contains dangerous contaminants and chemicals. In fact, most chemicals that are added, including chlormaine, are in such tiny amounts that they would have no impact on human health, he says.

At roughly two parts per million, “it literally is like a drop in a swimming pool,” Pine says. “(In Berkeley), you’re basically getting Sierra snowmelt right from its source to your tap.”

So what are you getting when you drink bottled water?

It’s no longer a secret that the vast majority of bottled water is essentially filtered tap water. Dasani gets most of its water from local suppliers, according to its online manufacturing information. The water goes through various treatments to remove minerals and impurities, including carbon filtration, UV filtration and reverse osmosis. Then, bottling plants re-inject “the right amount of key minerals,” including magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride and salt, “to provide DASANI with its pure, fresh taste.”

Yet just because it comes in a bottle doesn’t mean it has fewer contaminants. As part of his job on campus, Pine tests the surface water quality of Strawberry Creek, the main body of water on campus, often using a bottle of Dasani from the vending machine for comparison. By analyzing both, he has found that Dasani can contain trace amounts of chloroform, a by-product of the bottling process.

Of course, water quality isn’t all that’s at stake in the war on bottles. Oft-cited is the inflated cost to consumers — typically thousands of times the price of water from the tap — and the considerable cost to the environment.

Most of a bottle’s waste accumulates before it even hits consumer hands. That usually includes crude oil (traditionally the main material used in bottles), gasoline for the trucks that ship it, and waste water used to wash bottles and equipment. According to a 2006 study by the Pacific Institute, the American water bottle industry is fueled by more than 1.5 million oil barrels, enough to power 100,000 cars for a year.

In the past two years, both Dasani and Aquafina, the two leading bottled water manufacturers, have worked to give the plastic bottle a “green” makeover. Most of the bottles sold on campus are Dasani “Plantbottles,” which incorporate up to 30% plant sugars and distinguished by their green tops. Meanwhile, PepsiCo unveiled an eco-bottle made entirely of plant waste like pine bark and corn husks earlier this month.

Litter around Strawberry Creek, UC Berkeley’s main natural water source, flows into the Bay.

Yet renewable materials don’t change the fact that plastic bottles do not biodegrade and may stay in the environment for decades. Pine is known among his colleagues for constantly removing the green caps — which are just the size to be mistaken by birds for food — from Strawberry Creek and from storm drains.

“It makes me insane to see this stuff making its way into the creek and into the Bay. It’s a personal insult to me,” he says. “It’s just astounding that those bottles have such a persistent effect on the environment.”

What Lies Ahead

In the case of Santa Cruz, Kirk envisions a UC-wide movement that goes beyond the specifics of her campus.

Her goal is ambitious: to deliver a message on water that “stays in people’s psyches”, and impacts students’ choices not only on campus, but in the rest of their daily lives. To this end, her team is performing observational studies of campus water fountains and surveying the student body on their water preferences. She emphasizes that whatever program is ultimately implemented should reflect student concerns and empower them to impact campus decisions.

“There are so many things that students of the UC have had forced upon them,” she says. “We’ve had budget cuts, tuition increases… you see so many things where students don’t have power. This could be a really good opportunity for them to get it.”

Kirk is working with the campus to institute a full ban by the end of 2011-12.

Back at home, Whitson says she’s prepared for the battle against bottles to continue after she graduates. She believes this initiative will get things flowing, but it will take time for any successful movement to navigate the delicate interplay of campus finances, student opinions and health and environmental issues already in place.

“It’s definitely going to be an upward battle,” she said. “There’s still people who raise concerns about freedom of choice, what if I like the taste of bottled water, how do we know if the pipes are clean. But the whole point is we’re not cutting off bottled water immediately… we’re going to be working with administration to make sure the public water we have to drink is good and clean. Nothing is set in stone.”

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