A Large Multi-National Wants to Sell Bottled Water on Our Campus... Thanks But No Thanks

Monday, August 31, 2015

You might not know this but when you decide to go bottled water free, you get a lot of criticism from big corporations. More specifically, bottled water companies, who by the way love to send tonnes of letters about why you need to reconsider your decision. So at uOttawa we get lots of these letters. Some nice, some bad, some threatening, some completely incomprehensible.

I thought I would let everyone see what it is like when we get one of these letters and how I like to handle them. I personally believe that water should never be denied to people how need it. I is essential to our lives and to our way of life. And don't get me wrong, I do believe that there is a time and place for bottled water and that it does have some very important and very critical applications. I understand big corporations need to eek out a living as well, but sometimes you have to draw a line.

As a recovering science student, one of the things I really hate is when people toss a study at you and say something like "Science says so". In this case, the Berman and Johnson study from Vermont was used as a tool to say "this is why people shouldn't bottled water free". I often think that people don't even read these studies before they are sent out... luckily I did.


Hello Mr. So and So
Thank you for taking an interest in our bottled water ban. For the past 5-years the University of Ottawa has been a bottled water free campus. This action was greatly celebrated in our community as it was an opportunity for the Student Federation and the University of Ottawa to come together on a common issue.

The purpose of our ban was not really to reduce plastic waste on campus, as you eluded to in your letter. Although we have noted a dramatic reduction in waste in recent years, the purpose of our ban was to increase the accessibility of water on campus. As you may know, bottled water is extremely expensive when compared to the price paid at the tap.

I have reviewed the study provided to us in your email. I find it to be a very well organized study with some very interesting statistics. The focus on waste and calorie intake were certainly noted. However, there are a lot of problems that are actually acknowledged in the study that would lead me to not take what is being said to heart or to try to say that this study is representative of any other institution. The statement in the Discussion section of the study indicating that “no causalities can be drawn between the removal of bottled water and the increase in unhealthy beverage consumption or in calorie and added sugar consumption” is particularly interesting.

Some of the concerning parts of the study include the fact that;

  • The study is a very limited time frame and the authors admit that they do not know if there was already a trend towards increasing consumption in sugary drinks prior to the bottled water ban. The paper refers to literature research that indicates that the consumption of sugary beverages has already been increasing for several decades.
  • The study monitors the impacts of bottled drinks immediately after a bottled water ban, which is likely an extremely confusing time. The authors admit that over time there is reason to believe that more people would habituate to carrying a reusable bottle and thus drive down the numbers of bottles purchased. A follow-up study is needed to ensure that this is not simply a flash in the pan.
  • The authors outline the fact that the sample size is very small and that this could greatly distort the numbers. There is also no data relating to what is happening in these locations. For instance, were their special 'sales' on other products during that time or were all the locations kept consistent in terms of advertising and product selection.
  • The authors indicate that they are using shipping data which could lead to an over estimation of calories consumed and inconsistencies in their numbers.

At our institution, we have taken some of the measures mentioned in the study to increase reusable water bottle use. We provide a free reusable bottles during welcome week to every student, we distribute free reusable bottles all year long at various locations, and we participate in events to raise awareness about bottled water.

Aside from what is mention in the study, there are other dimensions of sustainability that should be considered.

On environmental issues….
Plastic bottles are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental impacts of bottled water. The shipping of these bottles require a significant consumption of fuel. Seeing as water is already piped to the campus, it is redundant and wasteful to drive large trucks full of water to and from campus.

Vending machines, which keep the bottled water cold, represent a substantive electricity cost to our campus and especially during hot summer days, they represent a burden as we need to further cool spaces to deal with the heat generated by these machines. Ultimately this increases our carbon footprint.

There are of course other issues related to where the water for these bottles of water are procured, but I won’t go into any of that.

On accessibility and water quality….
Selling bottled water in stores means that you only purchase the beverage when retail locations are open. Not every location on campus is serviced by vending machines, and so focusing on water fountains is a key strategy for our institution. We currently have 164 water fountains on campus located in strategic areas to ensure that water is always available, they don't close down in the evenings and on weekends.

A recent article from the CBC noted that Ottawa has some of the cleanest drinking water in Canada, if not the entire world. (You can check out that article right here) This water is the very water that nourishes our fountains. The water in the City of Ottawa is tested dozens of times a day for a wide variety of contaminants and harmful substances.

Fear not, even though we do not sell bottled water on campus, there are two convenience stores located within a 2 minute walk of the campus that sell bottled water so if students truly do want bottled water, it is never more than a quick walk away.

uottawa is a Bottled Water Free Campus with fountains located every whereOn the cost to students….
I did a quick look online look for ******** Water products and the most economic price I could find was $0.24 for a litre of water (at Walmart for a pack of 24 bottles). At nearby convenience stores, the cheapest price I could find was $1.25 a litre and vending machines off campus price water at about $3 to $4 per litre. As an institution, we pay about $3.20 for 1000 litres of water, or $0.0032 per litre of tap water. Although I should of course mention that students don’t actually pay anything for this water because it is free from the fountain.

If students were to consume a litre of bottled water a day, it could run them north of $500 a year. This cost is prohibitive to many students who do not have the means to afford this option and, quite frankly, the money could be spent on other things such as textbooks, clothing, or food.

I do share your concern about the idea that students may be consuming too many sugar filled beverages. I am happy to share with you the fact that the University of Ottawa has hired a dedicated dietitian to help guide healthy food choices on campus. We hope to educate our students and empower them to make better food choices not only with the beverages they consume but also with the other food choices they make.

Just as a quick aside, I googled the other beverage products that your company offers in Canada. I couldn’t help but notice that there were very few low sugar options available other than coffee, tea, and milk. I did however notice a glut of high sugar products...
I got a little belligerent at this part so how about I just edit it out...
Perhaps if your company could offer some more affordable, low sugar options, we would be happy to sell them on campus.

I am happy to meet in person and discuss further. I would also be happy to show you around the campus and tour our world class water infrastructure.

~ jON - campus sustainability manager

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