Iowa colleges pushing to cut use of bottled water

Robert Koehler, a University of Iowa senior from Ames, signs a pledge to not use bottled water for personal use and use
Robert Koehler, a University of Iowa senior from Ames, signs a pledge to not use bottled water for personal use and use tap water when ever possible in order to receive a free reusable metal bottle at a table in Hubbard Park in Iowa City on Friday, April 20, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)

Iowa colleges and universities are handing out reusable bottles to incoming students, installing water refilling stations across campuses to make it easier for students to fill their own bottles and using pitchers of water over prepackaged bottles at meetings and conferences.

Some of the campus movements to reduce the use and sale of bottled water are driven by students, who see sipping from reusable bottles as cheaper for students and more environmentally conscious.

The original intent of some of the students pushing for change was to get campus bans on the sale of bottled water. After finding that wasn’t feasible in many cases due to existing vendor contracts and the high demand for bottled water, focus has shifted to pushing to make it more convenient and visible for students to drink from reusable bottles.

“Since we couldn’t eliminate the product, we’re trying to find something that would pique student interest and get them to make the behavioral switch,” said University of Iowa sophomore Kelsey Zlevor, sustainability liaison to the UI Student Government.

More than a dozen “hydration stations” around the UI campus are tall enough to set reusable bottles for refilling, and they have a counter to measure how many plastic bottles were saved.

“It kind of creates the awareness we were looking for ... a tangible sense of looking at what was diverted from the landfill,” the 20-year-old environmental science major from LaGrange Park, Ill., said.

Colleges are spending from $900 to about $2,000 per unit in many cases to install the hydration stations or to retrofit existing fountains for bottle refilling, but officials say they think it’s a worthy investment to promote green practices. A recent Bloomberg News article said more than 90 schools are banning the sale or restricting the use of plastic water bottles.

At Mount Mercy University, a campus sustainability task force this year set a goal of eliminating the sale of bottled water on campus by 2013. The Cedar Rapids campus also has four new water refilling stations that track the number of plastic bottles saved.

The university also received a grant from the Sisters of Mercy to cover the cost of retrofitting existing water fountains with a gooseneck-style spigot. The grant covered the cost of installing 12 of those fountains, and another eight will be in next year’s budget, Barb Pooley, vice president for finance and business operations, said. Environmental awareness is an important issue for the Sisters of Mercy, the founding order of the school, Pooley said.

Mount Mercy junior Ben Wood, a Cascade native studying public relations and communication studies, said he often sees students using the refilling stations in the residence halls or mentioning how much they like the option. Wood, 21, served on the campus task force that recommended eliminating the sale of bottled water.

“With people using reusable water bottles, it eliminates the factor of just tossing things,” he said.

Student groups at Iowa State University are on both sides of the issue.

The Government of the Student Body recently passed a resolution supporting the reduction of bottled water sales on campus. But a group representing students living in the residence halls support the continued sale of bottled water.

ISU officials are considering restrictions when the current vending contract expires at the end of this fiscal year, Warren Madden, vice president for business and finance, said. Bottled water sales are about $100,000 in revenue annually for ISU Dining, he said.

It’s cheaper for students to drink tap or fountain water, Madden said, but there also is the issue of offering a choice to consumers.

In the meantime, ISU will continue to add taller spigots for refilling bottles. About $100,000 is included in a preliminary budget for campus repairs next year to retrofit all fountains on campus, Madden said.

Kirkwood Community College is including water refilling stations in all new campus construction or renovations, Facilities Director Tom Kaldenberg said. A typical drinking fountain costs about $650, and the modified filling stations cost about $1,000, he said.

Some Kirkwood students originally wanted a ban on the sale of products in plastic bottles, but it was deemed unfeasible. Testing the new fountains in Iowa Hall found significant demand.

“We went a different route of just promoting reusable water bottles and getting the word out about how bad plastic bottle waste is,” said Kirkwood sophomore Kirsten Kraklio, a liberal-arts major from Cedar Rapids.The University of Northern Iowa this year installed 10 bottle refill stations in residence halls and apartments, but officials aren’t advocating a ban on sales. When customers stop buying bottled water, the university will stop providing it, said Carol Petersen, UNI director of dining services and interim executive director of residence.

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