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Splashing into the bottled water debate

Project Green says tap water perfectly safe

By Toby Rowe

A growing number of institutions and municipalities are eliminating bottled water in their facilities. They are doing so based on studies that suggest bottled water has negative social and environmental impacts and that bottled water is often produced under lower health and safety standards than public or tap water. On the other hand, some argue that bottled water is convenient and tastes better.

Bottled water has become a hot topic and Memorial is jumping into the debate. Several groups at the university are looking into the use of bottled water, including Project Green which is working toward a ban on selling bottled water, and the MUN Students’ Union (MUNSU) which has been encouraging academic and administrative units to officially put an end to the use of bottled water in their facilities and at events.

There are many reasons to reduce the use of bottled water. The City of St. John’s provides safe drinking water, and taxes are collected to help cover the cost. Why would you want to pay for water that has been bottled thousands of kilometres away when you have unlimited access to tap water? The environmental impact of producing plastic bottles, filling them in bottling plants, transporting, and then disposing is significant. Bottled water is often filtered tap water or sometimes taken from a spring or other source. Communities where the water is sourced rarely see much economic gain, as the bottlers may not have to pay for the water.

St. John’s took a stand against bottled water last year. It approved a policy in June that prohibits the use of city funds to purchase bottled water for city operations and for functions that the city sponsors. As the entity that provides safe drinking water to the residents of St. John’s, it did seem like a contradiction for the city to use and provide bottled water while trying to cultivate a trust in the drinking water system.

Memorial’s Sustainability Office and the Advisory Committee on Sustainability would like to encourage discussion about drinking water at the university. The office will be gathering input from staff, faculty and students on issues related to drinking water at the university through a survey in the new year. While it may seem fairly simple to stop using bottled water on our campuses, information needs to be gathered to understand the impact of such a policy at an institution the size of Memorial.

I support prohibiting the provision of bottled water at university events and the purchase, by the university, of bottled water for use in offices.

Kent Decker, vice-president (administration and finance), is a strong supporter of sustainability initiatives on campus and recently said, “Personally, I would be really happy if I never saw another bottle [of bottled water] on campus again.”

Student groups have similar opinions.

“By allowing the sale of bottled water on campus, Memorial University is saying to the world ‘We believe the sale of privatized water is a legitimate practice,’” said Peter Smith of Project Green. “Really, it is one of the great evils of our society today.”

Melissa Penney, director of campaigns with MUNSU, told me she feels the use of bottled water is “not only wasteful, damaging to the environment and potentially unhealthy, but it also undermines public confidence in our – far superior – public water systems.

“The city has responded to the public’s concerns, and our next goal is to lobby the university to put an end to the promotion and use of bottled water on campus.”

From speaking with staff, faculty and students, it is clear that there are issues around banning bottled water that must be addressed. For example, do employees, students and the public have access to tap water on our campuses? If yes, why do some people still avoid drinking tap water? Are there sufficient fountains and can they accommodate containers for filling? If bottled water is prohibited from events and meetings, would the university switch to reusable glasses instead of disposable, non-recyclable cups? Does staff have access to facilities for washing cups and glasses? If a visitor wants water to drink and doesn’t have a container to fill, will the only option be to buy a soft drink from a vending machine?

We need to determine and overcome the barriers to tap water use at the university in order to reduce consumption of bottled water. The Sustainability Office would like to get your input on bottled water and tap water use on our campuses. Look for an online survey in the new year to provide your opinion.

Toby Rowe is Memorial’s sustainability co-ordinator. She welcomes your comments on this topic. You can e-mail This article first appeared in the winter 2008 issue of The Communicator, Memorial's employee and pensioner newsletter.