Weaning off the bottle: UC Berkeley tests the waters

Being a college student means starting to make tough decisions. But here’s one you might not expect: bottled water or tap?

Students at UC Berkeley are poised to vote next week on whether they want to be sold plastic water bottles on their own campus. On the April 5-7 student election ballot, they can check off an initiative to support phasing out the sale of bottled water and improving access to public water, including campus drinking fountains.

UC Berkeley would join an eco-trend that has swept colleges nationwide. Washington University and the University of Seattle  jumped on the bandwagon last fall and the University of Portland was the first West Coast campus to start a ban in 2010. And it’s not just universities: in 2007, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom prohibited all city departments from purchasing bottled water.

Student leaders of the movement say it’s a way for them to take charge over their consumption of a wasteful product. By reducing plastic waste on campus, a bottle ban would help the campus reach its goal of trimming waste by 75% by 2012, says UC Berkeley senior Rose Whitson, who is spearheading the effort with student senator Elliot Goldstein.

Whitson and Goldstein are working to do away with single-use plastic water bottles at UC Berkeley, starting with a student vote next week.

Whitson, an environmental science major who is “fascinated” by the ramifications of single-use plastics, heads the student Sustainability Team. She says she hopes the campaign will make students rethink their reliance on plastic bottles.

“We have so many drinking fountains on campus,” she says. “We’ve been trained to think it’s convenient, but is it really convenient to go to a store and buy a bottle of water?”

UC Berkeley has been brainstorming alternatives to single-use bottles for a while now. Two years ago, the campus started an awareness campaign called “I Heart Tap Water,” which renovated campus water fountains, installed two fast-filling “Hydration Stations” in the recreational sports facility and began selling refillable metal water bottles on campus.

By 2008-09, the campus had cut water bottle sales by 37%, to 844,152 bottles, according to the campaign. Since then, the decrease has been even more dramatic, although official numbers haven’t been released yet, says Kim La Pean, communications manager for Berkeley’s University Health Services.

Walking through campus, that shift is evident. Most students sport a Klean Canteen or other refillable bottle. Of the seven students I spoke with who had purchased single-use bottles, just one said he bought them regularly, citing convenience, while the others all said they had forgotten their reusable ones at home.

Part of the reason for putting the ban on the ballot this spring is that the campus may be re-opening negotiations with the Coca-Cola Company, UC Berkeley’s primary beverage sponsor, says Whitson. The campus’s current contract with the company (which can be viewed here) expires in August. Whitson sees this an opportunity for students to take water bottles out of the equation for future contracts.

“This is Berkeley,” she says. “We can be creative and find other things to sell that are more sustainable and have a better impact on our campus.”

As it stands, the initiative is non-binding. As Whitson puts it: “It’s more of a show of support so we can say we have students behind us. It’s a commitment to the future.” If more than half of students vote yes, she says her team will begin working with the administration to remove plastic bottles.

Some administrators, however, are skeptical. Even with the decrease, bottled water is a top-selling product on campus and a key to keeping the Coca-Cola contract, says Nadesan Permaul, Director of the ASUC Auxiliary, which oversees campus businesses. A full ban would negatively impact campus’s already strained finances and would likely jeopardize its relationship with the bottling company, he says.

“To simply stop sales on the campus will hurt the A.S.U.C. and campus funding models based on beverage revenues, and will not stop students from walking across the street and purchasing bottled water,” he wrote in an email. “I can assure you that the Campus Beverage Alliance will not be excluding bottled water in the next contract,” he added in another.

Sophomore Jonathan Asfaha says he only purchases a plastic water bottle when he forgets his canteen at home. He’ll use this one for the next couple of weeks.

According to the Coca-Cola contract, UC Berkeley receives a set fee of $550,000 a year from beverage sales. About $200,000 of that goes to the student government, which allocates funding for student groups and activities. The contract provides for campus dining and other departments to purchase 24-bottle cases of Dasani water for $10, which comes out to 42 cents per bottle. At Golden Bear Café, one of the campus’s main student eateries, that water is resold at $1.80.

Though water bottles may be a key source of campus revenue, other campuses in the system have already started phasing them out. At UC Santa Cruz, student leader Gabi Kirk has met with some success: thanks to her efforts, almost all campus dining affiliated eateries have stopped selling bottles.

Still, institutional change takes time. Unlike the majority of campuses that have already implemented a ban, Kirk points out, both Santa Cruz and Berkeley are large, sprawling public universities with many administrative actors. She faced the bureaucratic reality last semester, after garnering almost 1,500 student signatures on a petition to the UC Regents to end bottled water sales. As it turned out, it would take several months of planning and research just to gain the support of campus departments.

“So we’re not doing this huge push like, ‘you should end it tomorrow,’” she says. “Because it’s just not realistic.”

Bottled Versus Tap


Experts say UC Berkeley is uniquely positioned to make the switch off the bottle, because of the city’s top-quality tap water.

Almost all East Bay water starts as Sierra Nevada snowmelt, which flows into the Mokelumne River watershed, according to East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) water treatment information. From there, it makes its way to the Pardee Reservoir, where it is transported to cities via closed pipelines. Because of its purity, treatment is more of a “polishing process,” says Tim Pine, a campus environmental specialist who worked with EBMUD in water treatment for five years.

Treatment plants filter water through sand, remove suspended particles and aerate it to remove gases. The plants also add two chemicals: chloramine, a disinfectant, and fluoride, for dental health. EBMUD’s full 2009 quality report can be found here.

Pine, who also advised the “I Heart Tap Water” campaign, says a major challenge to getting the public to embrace tap water is the “fear factor”: the exaggerated perception that non-bottled water contains dangerous contaminants and chemicals. In fact, most chemicals that are added, including chlormaine, are in such tiny amounts that they would have no impact on human health, he says.

At roughly two parts per million, “it literally is like a drop in a swimming pool,” Pine says. “(In Berkeley), you’re basically getting Sierra snowmelt right from its source to your tap.”

So what are you getting when you drink bottled water?

It’s no longer a secret that the vast majority of bottled water is essentially filtered tap water. Dasani gets most of its water from local suppliers, according to its online manufacturing information. The water goes through various treatments to remove minerals and impurities, including carbon filtration, UV filtration and reverse osmosis. Then, bottling plants re-inject “the right amount of key minerals,” including magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride and salt, “to provide DASANI with its pure, fresh taste.”

Yet just because it comes in a bottle doesn’t mean it has fewer contaminants. As part of his job on campus, Pine tests the surface water quality of Strawberry Creek, the main body of water on campus, often using a bottle of Dasani from the vending machine for comparison. By analyzing both, he has found that Dasani can contain trace amounts of chloroform, a by-product of the bottling process.

Of course, water quality isn’t all that’s at stake in the war on bottles. Oft-cited is the inflated cost to consumers — typically thousands of times the price of water from the tap — and the considerable cost to the environment.

Most of a bottle’s waste accumulates before it even hits consumer hands. That usually includes crude oil (traditionally the main material used in bottles), gasoline for the trucks that ship it, and waste water used to wash bottles and equipment. According to a 2006 study by the Pacific Institute, the American water bottle industry is fueled by more than 1.5 million oil barrels, enough to power 100,000 cars for a year.

In the past two years, both Dasani and Aquafina, the two leading bottled water manufacturers, have worked to give the plastic bottle a “green” makeover. Most of the bottles sold on campus are Dasani “Plantbottles,” which incorporate up to 30% plant sugars and distinguished by their green tops. Meanwhile, PepsiCo unveiled an eco-bottle made entirely of plant waste like pine bark and corn husks earlier this month.

Litter around Strawberry Creek, UC Berkeley’s main natural water source, flows into the Bay.

Yet renewable materials don’t change the fact that plastic bottles do not biodegrade and may stay in the environment for decades. Pine is known among his colleagues for constantly removing the green caps — which are just the size to be mistaken by birds for food — from Strawberry Creek and from storm drains.

“It makes me insane to see this stuff making its way into the creek and into the Bay. It’s a personal insult to me,” he says. “It’s just astounding that those bottles have such a persistent effect on the environment.”

What Lies Ahead

In the case of Santa Cruz, Kirk envisions a UC-wide movement that goes beyond the specifics of her campus.

Her goal is ambitious: to deliver a message on water that “stays in people’s psyches”, and impacts students’ choices not only on campus, but in the rest of their daily lives. To this end, her team is performing observational studies of campus water fountains and surveying the student body on their water preferences. She emphasizes that whatever program is ultimately implemented should reflect student concerns and empower them to impact campus decisions.

“There are so many things that students of the UC have had forced upon them,” she says. “We’ve had budget cuts, tuition increases… you see so many things where students don’t have power. This could be a really good opportunity for them to get it.”

Kirk is working with the campus to institute a full ban by the end of 2011-12.

Back at home, Whitson says she’s prepared for the battle against bottles to continue after she graduates. She believes this initiative will get things flowing, but it will take time for any successful movement to navigate the delicate interplay of campus finances, student opinions and health and environmental issues already in place.

“It’s definitely going to be an upward battle,” she said. “There’s still people who raise concerns about freedom of choice, what if I like the taste of bottled water, how do we know if the pipes are clean. But the whole point is we’re not cutting off bottled water immediately… we’re going to be working with administration to make sure the public water we have to drink is good and clean. Nothing is set in stone.”

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  • Voxhumana

    We stopped plastic water bottles at least three years ago. For travel, we bring our empty Klean canteens. Our home water supply is filtered with a Multi-Pure undersink filter, making the quality of our water from home much better than any plastic bottled water from Dasani/Coca Cola. It is not just a matter of choice, we are all impacting the planet with our foolish choices. This is a small personal, but big change for the planet we can make without much sacrafice. Kudos to the UCB students who are spearheading this effort.

  • Sharkey

    I’m all for encouraging reusable solutions, and I carry my own stainless steel water bottle, but I wonder if banning bottled water really the best solution.

    Will the ban only cover plain bottled water? What about flavored water? What about carbonated water? What about sodas? They’re just flavored, less healthy versions of bottled water and create just as much waste.

    I’m glad they’re promoting the use of reusable bottles and educating consumers about the reality of what bottled water is and what its impact on the environment is. I wonder if they’ve looked into adding some sort of “convenience fee” to bottled water sales to just make buying bottled water less attractive. Raising the price would discourage people from buying bottled water while still leaving them the option, and the money raised through the fee could be used to buy carbon offsets or something along those lines.

  • Rachel A.

    Those single use plastic bottles are a polluting nightmare, IMHO. I’m all for the ban. I find it easy enough to tote around my CamelBak Groove bottle which has a non-carbon filter already in it — so the water is filtered and it’s not a single-use bottle being thrown out.

    And I miss water fountains.

  • grover

    I support phasing out bottled water only if other hygienic options are made available. Water fountains are known to be awash with dangerous germs while the taps (where one needn’t pour in water directly into their mouth) are rather scarce on-campus.

  • Anonymous

    Bottled water isnt the devil. Daily consumption of bottled water is a huge waste, but if i forget my normal bottle at home and want to have a bottle of water with me to sit through a long class, i shouldnt have to drink soda.

  • Marjorie Freedman

    Why not get rid of carbonated soft drinks at the same time? Is Coke and Pepsi picking up the tab for increased health care costs? Support the one cent tax (per teaspoon of sugar) on sugar-sweetened beverages introduced into the CA state legislature!

  • Anonymous

    Pine states: In fact, most chemicals that are added, including chlormaine, are in such tiny amounts that they would have no impact on human health, he says. At roughly two parts per million, “it literally is like a drop in a swimming pool,” Pine says. “(In Berkeley), you’re basically getting Sierra snow-melt right from its source to your tap.”

    ** Full stop with all of this nonsense **: I had an experienced senior representative from EBMUD pay me a house call to my small studio apartment in about 2004 here in N. Berkeley as I discovered this thin film of an oily like sheen floating on top of my cold water that I had poured into my kitchen pot for cooking pasta with. He ‘knew” via my phone description what is was then however wanted to make the full verification in person visually. Now pay close attention to what I am about to state. He told me that it was the chlormaine in the water and that it had succeeded in “melting” my rubber washers in the kitchen pipes as it ( the chemical ) stays in the system longer as it was designed, however it has this surreal ability to eat rubber washers and “that” was the sheen I was seeing in my cold water that day. Additionally after a quick disassembly, I found that it has eaten away my washers across time and I was told by this one EBMUD representative that I had to go out and purchase a “special” set of replacement washers that would withstand the onslaught of this one chemical.

    We have not even being to discuss the ‘other’ chemicals ( heavy metals for starters ) that most filters cannot remove from your tap water along with Cesium 137, let alone some the new strange inorganic one’s that are now turning up. So until this is fully cleared up on an ongoing basis, it’s Crystal Geyser Mountain Spring water for me despite the cost. It’s the only H2O allowed to be imported into Japan Btw. surpassing all of the others in purity. The plant in Calistoga actually shuts down and goes to a 24/7 schedule for one full month to produce enough to fill the Japanese orders for it’s water. Now it may go for an entire year if not more now as per it’s incredible ongoing needs post disaster.

    I would like to head from the water scientists and chemists on this issue and more as per tap water actually becoming the new safe drinking water as I do desire to switch *if* I can filter out the estrogenic mimics and much worse.

  • Guest

    I’d love if they’d test to make sure pipes in the older buildings are lead free and safe too. Regular cleaning would be a benefit too. Can someone do a study? I’d be curious to see how many germs are actually transferred into the water.

  • These discussions always seem to be framed as students having to choose between commercially bottled or tap. There are other options such as refilling stations that draw from the municipal water but filter and chill it at the point of dispense. They can be set up for payment vends or free vends and supported by advertising or other means.

    For more permanent installations there are new versions of the water fountain but set up to refill bottles and are ergonomically designed to be more sanitary old style water fountains.

  • BNord

    Iceland below mentions the effect chloramine has on rubber plumbing parts. It also can cause digestive, respiratory problems, and/or skin rashes. I live on the Peninsula and cannot use our tap water because of severe skin rashes caused by chloramine. When water mains break and chloraminated water is released into the watershed, fish and frogs are killed–in great quantities. Please see http://www.chloramine for additional information.

  • Back when I was in school, we didn’t even have bottled water. We had to use drinking fountains. Your personal hydration strategy was much more important in those days. Kids today don’t know how awful it was.

  • Anonymous

    More peer reviewed studies on the chlormine issues as per the measurable lead increases and much more. This is far from a “well thought out” and scientifically based action — this longer lasting chlorine derivative. The “Sierra snow melt reference” is from one who is ill educated or just misinformed on the entire chemistry of this complex subject. Then there are all of the “other” wild things. We need smart and wise people at the helm with all of this and not just a few who are guessing or in denial. Have you forgotten MTBE issue alone here in California?

    “Byproduct of water-disinfection process found to be highly toxic”

    Genetic toxicologist Michael Plewa and Elizabeth Wagner, principal research specialist, both in the department of crop sciences, collaborated with three EPA researchers on research into a disinfection byproduct found in drinking water treated with chloramines.

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A recently discovered disinfection byproduct (DBP) found in U.S. drinking water treated with chloramines is the most toxic ever found, says a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who tested samples on mammalian cells.

    The discovery raises health-related questions regarding an Environmental Protection Agency plan to encourage all U.S. water-treatment facilities to adopt chlorine alternatives, said Michael J. Plewa [PLEV-uh], a genetic toxicologist in the department of crop sciences.

    “This research says that when you go to alternatives, you may be opening a Pandora’s box of new DBPs, and these unregulated DBPs may be much more toxic, by orders of magnitude, than the regulated ones we are trying to avoid.”


  • Tomonobu Takahashi

    who cares?

  • Starfire

    While I suppport not using plastic bottles, what exactly will be banned? Coca Cola? Fruit juice? What about flavored water? If I want to sell water on campus how much of an additive will make it exempt from the ban?

  • X-Sparker

    What happens if there was an earthquake and all the water lines are contaminated? Where would UCB students get their water then? I am not against this initiative (I’m an owner of an ECO canteen myself), but I am not supportive of it either. I disapprove of daily bottled water usage, but once in a while if people forgot to bring their canteens or if there is a crisis and bottled water is needed at large amounts, banning bottled water doesn’t seem like the best solution to me. I’m also doubtful about the way Pine describes the chloramine in tap water as “literally like a drop in a swimming pool.” My toxicology class has taught me that statements like these mean nothing if the chemical is accumulative or toxic enough (maybe not chloramine particularly, but the fact that Pine said it that way makes me raise my eyebrows). I know the Bay Area has pretty good tap water, but people should be given a choice, especially when it comes down to something as fundamental as drinking water.

    With that said, I discourage the use of bottled water on an unnecessary basis, am all for the use of canteens, and encourage a fee raise on bottled water instead of outright banning.