The University of Vermont recently became America’s largest public institution to enact a campus-wide ban on plastic water bottles.
Students, faculty, staff and visitors will no longer have the ability to purchase a bottle of water in vending machines, retail outlets or cafeterias. But they will be able to refill their own bottles at water filling stations scattered around the campus.
The University of Vermont is not the first institution to ban bottled water. In the United States, 22 other colleges and universities have already stopped selling bottled water. Dozens more are taking steps toward bans by limiting institutional funds and promoting alternatives for bottled water.
On these campuses, staffers will no longer order cases of bottled water for meetings. Instead, they’ll hand attendees a refillable bottle and point them to the nearest water filling station.
How will this affect the beverage companies?
The University of Vermont’s ban on bottled water could represent the start of a trend among larger colleges and universities. For beverage companies, educational institutions represent a significant portion of the market, and the loss of these sales could prove difficult to overcome.
While water bottlers and distributors would rather promote recycling and free choice, sustainability-focused students and other ban supporters say that recycling isn’t nearly enough. They point to studies that say only 25% of bottles ever make it to the recycling center and cite the industry’s use of natural resources in producing, transporting and distributing its products.
U.S. consumers spent $10.6 billion on bottled water in 2009. Many think it’s better for their health or safer than tap water. But increasingly, what consumers may visualize as pure mountain spring water, bottled for their convenience, is coming straight from a public water system, according to consumer organization Food & Water Watch.
In 2010, Food & Water Watch published data that showed the beverage industry is moving away from bottling spring water and that municipal water supplies are increasingly used to meet the demand for bottled water. Between 2000 and 2009, tap water went from about a third (32.7%) to nearly half (47.8%) of bottled water sold in the familiar clear plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
The thinking at some colleges and universities is that if the water inside bottles is simply purified tap water, why should they pay extra – and negatively impact the environment – for something that’s already flowing through every faucet and fountain on campus?
More and more are refusing to do so. Promoting tap water and enacting bottled water bans will likely continue, as the focus on sustainability at colleges such as the University of Vermont becomes more mainstream.
The decrease in university sales, along with general consumer declines over the past few years, has the bottled water industry seeking new markets. China, India and regions where people lack access to clean drinking water could replace American universities as a source of revenue for bottled water companies in the years to come.
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