Kentucky colleges wage battle against bottled water

Move away from plastic bottles gains momentum at Kentucky's colleges

ctruman@herald-leader.comOctober 8, 2011 

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    For more information on decreasing the use of plastic water bottles, go to Takebackthetap.net, Insidethebottle.org, Aashe.org (for colleges and universities) or Revolvewater.com.

Kentucky's colleges and universities are trying to kick the plastic water bottle habit. Their solution? Installing "hydration stations" that give students, faculty and staff all the tap water they can pour into their own multi-use containers.

Some colleges elsewhere — including the College of St. Benedict and Macalester College in Minnesota, and the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba — have banned the sale of bottled water altogether. Kentucky's colleges are taking a more moderate approach.

Much of the movement toward examining the extent of single-use bottled water on campus comes from the increase in awareness of sustainability issues and environmentally friendly projects on campuses, and the "Take Back the Tap" drive by the non-profit Food and Water Watch to increase tap water use.

It's not just colleges that are kicking back against bottled water, which often costs more than $1 a bottle. In 2007, San Francisco banned the use of city funds to buy single-use plastic water bottles in 2007, when California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was mayor there, and Toronto banned the sale and use of bottled water on city premises in 2008.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer took action against the plastic profusion as soon as he was sworn in. "When the mayor took office, he got rid of all the plastic bottles," spokesman Chris Poynter said. The mayor's office doesn't have a designated hydration-station cooler. ("It's called the faucet," Poynter said.) In addition, Louisville festivals and events use hydration stations in which a patron buys a $2 cup and can fill it with water all day.

Lexington mayor's office spokesman Susan Straub said that the city no longer offers bottled water to guests because it doesn't have money to do so. If visitors request water, they are given a drink from the tap.

Students say the hydration stations are easy and convenient.

"I have a refillable aluminum water bottle that I bring with me all the time," said Chloe Hollon, a student assistant at UK's Student Center. "It's great. It's really convenient."

Moving away from bottled water has been one of the most discussed issues in campus environmental activism for years, said Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. "We've been seeing a huge uptick in the last two years with respect to this issue," he said.

Campuses usually start looking askance at single-use plastic bottles because of the waste they cause, Rowland said.

Some institutions set a goal of reducing waste by as much as their annual consumption of plastic water bottles, Rowland said. "They come to the conclusion, 'This will pay for itself in a few years,'" he said.

At UK, the impetus has been sustainability initiatives that have made students question how to change their habits — including the frequent purchase of single-use plastic water bottles.

"What we're seeing is encouragement of using the refillables rather than a banning" of the bottles, said Shane Tedder, UK's sustainability coordinator. "There's been really a student-led effort to get water fountains that have a bottle refill to them."

But don't look for bottled water to suddenly cease being available at UK. The campus vending machines are run by the Coca-Cola Co., which sells bottled water under its Dasani brand.

UK has hydration stations in its Student Center, its fitness centers and its recently remodeled Keeneland Hall dormitory, and the school gave out thousands of aluminum multi-use bottles at its fall orientation.

Tedder said that in the future, whenever UK has a water fountain scheduled to be serviced or replaced, consideration will be given to adding a hydration station for students to fill bottles. Dormitories, classrooms and libraries are all likely spots to be considered, he said.

A hydration station can be either a goose-neck attachment off a water fountain or a rectangular insert above the fountain bowl that dispenses chilled water into reusable bottles.

UK spokesman Gail Hairston said the amount of water pumped from hydration stations in the Student Center and Johnson Center fitness complex has been enough to fill nearly 460,000 water bottles. That is impressive given that although the Student Center stations were installed in September 2010, those in the Johnson Center began operation only last summer.

At Transylvania University in Lexington, where the campus and student population are smaller and the soda machine presence is less pervasive, the school is trying to shed most of its bottled-water trappings.

The college installed a hydration station near its pool as a pilot measure, and it staffed a table at a recent sustainability fair to make students aware of the waste and cost of bottled water.

The station has been a success and is "the first strategy that we're working on in eliminating bottled water from campus," Transylvania sustainability coordinator Angela Dossett said.

But there are obstacles, including buildings with older pipes and water that doesn't taste oh-so-fresh.

Nonetheless, Dossett said, tap water is much cheaper than bottled water. "We will be looking toward becoming a bottle-less campus," she said.

Centre College in Danville has installed pilot hydration stations in its Olin Hall science and math building.

Each station cost about $1,000 to set up, Centre spokesman Michael Strysick said, and was paid for by an unrestricted gift to the college.

"It is a successful program," Strysick said. "It is one we would like to expand."

Kentucky-American Water, the local utility, has leaped onto the tap-water bandwagon with its own Hydration Station — a trailer that hooks to a spigot or a fire hydrant and gives guests at community events all the chilled water they can drink.

Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202.

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