The daily routine for many Sarah Lawrence students walking into the Pub is simple and rhythmic. First check out the deserts and hot sandwich selection, take a lap around the snack aisle—maybe picking up a bag of lentil chips or a Cliff bar—then, open the fridge doors and pull out a bottle of Poland Springs or even a Glaceau Smart Water (that is, if there is some extra meal money available for the luxuries in life) before ordering whatever rice bowl tickles your fancy that day. While bottled water is admittedly incredibly convenient and accessible and probably a better decision for one’s blood sugar levels than that Coca Cola stationed right next to it, both the school’s decision to sell this product and the consumer’s personal decision to consume it might be doing more harm than the community is aware.
As a nation, the United States currently spends $11.8 billion a year on the stuff found in every single raindrop that hits our heads—WATER. Not only that, but corporations are seeing an all time high right now of $60 billion in revenue from the global consumption of water bottles. When looking at bottled water in comparison to tap water, the disgusting reality of this figure becomes far more apparent. With bottled water being set at an average cost of $1.22 per gallon, consumers are spending 300 times the cost of tap water to drink bottled water. However, if taken into account the fact that almost two-thirds of all bottled water sales (including the Dasani bottles available for student consumption in the Pub) are single 16.9oz (500 mL), rather than in the cheaper bulk gallon varieties, the average cost can be as high as $7.50 per gallon, according to the American Water Works Association. That is almost 2,000 times the cost of a gallon of tap water and twice the cost of a gallon of regular gasoline. When one factors in the notion that most bottled water actually is simply city tap water—sold back to us in a fancy throw-away bottle— these statistics become even more harrowing.
A great deal of plastic bottled waters (including fan favorites of the pub- Poland Springs and Smart Water) are produced using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. This is a chemical compound that is a derivative of Petroleum and costs our Earth a staggering 17 million barrels of oil a year, not to mention the amount of oil used in the transportation of said products. When factoring transit, refrigeration, recycling and recovery of these products, it is estimated that the total amount of energy embedded in America’s use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil.
Although many feel that recycling these bottles is the easy answer for this waste—and the many conveniently located recycling bins around campus would like to have you believe that your bottles are always ending up back in the same safe place they began—statistics have proven that this is often not the case. Of the 30 billion plastic water bottles sold in the United States in 2005, only twelve percent were recycled. The rest ended up bobbing in our lakes and streams, filling landfills, or perhaps joining the “plastic island” floating in the middle of the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas.
Another pressing matter behind the boycott of the bottle is that not only is bottled water detrimental for the planet, it is also a detrimental to personal health. Bottled water corporations have done their best to fool consumers into thinking that their water is somehow superior in quality and health benefits to the thing that comes right out of the sink. Firstly, consider the plastic that a majority of this once clean product is actually contained in. In addition to PETs, a great deal of the plastic available for our happy consumption is loaded with BPA (bisphenol-A). BPA is a potentially toxic, estrogen-mimicking compound used in plastic production that has been linked to breast cancer, early puberty in children, infertility, and other maladies. It is dangerous enough that it has been banned in baby bottles in Europe, Canada, and even China—but, due to our very own American exceptionalism, it has yet to be banned in the United States. Furthermore, New York State has some of the cleanest tap water in the entire country. New York’s tap water is also more frequently regulated than bottled water.
In an attempt to promote sustainability, social justice, and better health on campus and worldwide, many schools across the country including Cornell, Oberlin, and Rhode Island School of Design, have all successfully moved beyond bottled water and turned back to the tap. Kyle Wilkie, a long time champion of sustainability on campus, said that the easiest way for the school to stop selling bottled water on campus would be for students to stop buying it. “Our top priority is to keep the customer happy,” he said.
Unlike other schools that have binding contracts with bottled water production companies, SLC has a very loose connection with what products are bought and sold on our campus based on the simple chain of supply and demand.
So next time, before reaching for that shiny plastic bottle beckoning behind the glass case, reach instead for a re-usable bottle and some of the best tap water in the country. The Earth, your body, and the citizens of drought-stricken rural areas will surely thank you.
by Hillary Bernhardt '15