February 16, 2009

Cornell Lacks Plan to Ban Bottled Water

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Washington University in St. Louis’ ban of bottled water, beginning this semester, has spurred discussion about bottled water on Cornell’s campus — should Cornell jump on the ban-wagon?
Cornell sells over 1,000 bottles of water per week. According to Cornell Dining, Bear Necessities sells an average of 50 20-oz bottles of water per day, and Libe Café sells an average of 128 20-oz bottles of water each day.
At Cornell, the Sustainability Hub had planned to advocate for a ban in selling bottled water on campus last year, but the group gave up its quest, according to Christina Copeland ’11, member of the Sustainability Hub.[img_assist|nid=35158|title=Options, options …|desc=A student ponders his options in front of a display of bottled drinks in Sage Hall last Wednesday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“Originally we had the plan to ban it all over campus, but we realized that was going to be a pretty big goal, especially after talking to people in purchasing. We were basically told that [they] have contracts signed in blood with Pepsi and [they] couldn’t break those contracts. Basically we just got so much negative feedback and people telling us that it would be impossible, we didn’t look too much further into the specifics of the contracts. I’m assuming Washington University was able to do this because their contracts ended, [but] I don’t really know the details,” Copeland said.
The administration did not seem to have any official stance on banning bottled water. While there may be unofficial discussions, there is no concrete plan for eliminating bottled water from Cornell’s campus. The details of the contract the University has with Pepsi are undisclosed, and Cornell Dining would not release specific financial data.
Water is certainly a pertinent issue at Cornell and worldwide, according to Prof. Francis DiSalvo, chemistry and chemical biology, who is also the director of Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future.
“For the whole world, [water is] about to become a big problem. In part because the infrastructure that we have for water is decaying away, and the bill for replacing it is going to be enormous — nobody knows where that money is going to come from,” DiSalvo said. He further explained that the problem is also partly caused by an increasing world population and a change in the world’s water distribution due to climate change.
The greater Ithaca area, though, is lucky. As DiSalvo explained, “The local water that comes out of the tap here is at least as good as the stuff that comes out of the water bottle … The only time there is a real need for bottled water is when there is no access to water, or [when] the water isn’t clean [such that] you might get sick from it…”

A movement to eliminate bottled water is “a good program,” according to DiSalvo, but he questioned whether a campus-wide ban would be the most effective way to change people’s behavior.

“I’ve heard suggestions of lots of things we should change on campus by mandate, but I’m not so sure [if] they would change people’s behavior. As soon as people got off the campus they would be back to the other behavior, maybe even to excess just because you can’t do it on campus. I think there are already people [not buying bottled water] but whether we do it by mandate is a good question,” DiSalvo said.

Cornell has yet to take any substantial steps towards a universal ban on bottled water sales, according to DiSalvo.

“Right now, in the midst of the financial crisis, the administration has a lot on their plate. I’m not sure that [bottled water] would be the highest thing on their agenda to be thinking about … I think it will probably become part of the campus plan as we try to move forward to become more sustainable. I wouldn’t be surprised that all of these things will be addressed in due order,” DiSalvo said.

Some students, however, believed that an administrative ban could contribute much to the University’s sustainability efforts.

“Cornell banning bottled water would be a great step in the direction of sustainability. Given the right incentives and proper distribution of information, I think that the student body could really support the decision [for a universal ban],” Sarah Sy ‘11 said.

Samantha Negrin ‘11 agreed, saying that a ban would add to the University’s reputation.

“A ban would be an effective way to decrease the purchase and usage of bottled water on campus. It would also put people in the habit of not drinking from bottled water and it would put Cornell in a really good position nationally, as far as being a university taking strides to be more sustainable,”

The University is looking into alternatives to bottled water on Slope Day, according to Douglas Lockwood, office manager of Cornell Dining.

“We’re looking at alternatives for bottled water on slope day, but there are issues other than the environmental aspect. There are other health issues involved with Slope Day that kind of prescribes that we ought to have easily attainable, individual packets of water in order to keep students hydrated and right now the easiest way of doing that is through individual plastic bottles of water,” said Lockwood.

Lockwood also said that Cornell Dining is considering the option of using alternative plastic, such as biodegradable or compostable corn plastic. But Cornell Dining is still examining whether these options are economically feasible or truly sustainable, according to Lockwood.

The Sustainability Hub also evaluated alternatives to bottled water on Slope Day.

“When I was working on [eliminating bottled water] for Slope Day last year, I wanted Cornell to put the water into cartons and then the cartons could be composted. We were also looking into the cost of buying slope day Sigg bottles, but then people were worried that they would get thrown around and people would get hurt. However, a cardboard carton wouldn’t really cause that much harm if it were thrown,” Cortland said.

Both DiSalvo and Copeland agreed that Sigg bottles or nalgenes are good substitutes to bottled water. DiSalvo believed that these alternative options are more economic savvy, while Copeland said that “there should be more of an effort to get Sigg bottles and Nalgenes in the Cornell store.”

Other students, however, found these options inconvenient and preferred refilling water bottles.

“If people are against bottled water, they won’t buy it anyway. Sometimes, it is just more convenient to have a bottle of water as opposed to a fountain cup. Sigg-style bottles and nalgenes can be expensive, compared relative to a normal bottle, and can be clunky and inconvenient at times. I reuse my Poland Spring bottles by filling them up; I go through a case’s worth of water a week and I just fill up the bottles when they’re all empty,” said George Yorgakaros ‘11.

While it doesn’t look like the Cornell administration is going to ban bottled water in the near future, long term changes might have to come from the Cornell students themselves.

“I don’t know if it has to be [a bottom up movement] but I think that’s likely to be the most effective, if the students were to do it themselves ,” DiSalvo said. “I wouldn’t make a capital offense to have a bottle of water on the campus — I can imagine the circumstances where it might make sense — but by and large we don’t really need it … it very rarely works from top down where Skorton says ‘we’re not going to have any bottled water.’ On campus there wouldn’t be any, but it wouldn’t change the world.”