Washington University in St. Louis eliminated the sale of disposable plastic water bottles from its campus in January 2009. In 2013, Western Washington University became the largest public university to do the same. Occidental, however, used over 104,000 disposable plastic water bottles in 2014, only 30 percent of which were recycled, if our habits align with the national trend.
This use of disposable plastic water bottles is unnecessary, harmful and preventable. While reusing and recycling are better than nothing, reducing consumption and therefore reducing the amount of waste we generate is essential for slowing the rate of environmental degradation. And large-scale institutional changes are the most effective way to do so. Occidental can take part in initiating a solution by eliminating the sale of plastic water bottles on campus.
In the U.S., we’re lucky to have incredibly organized trash collection. Our homes, and the streets around us, are left clean, disconnecting us from the impact of our actions. But the chip bag, the hummus container, the juice bottle — they all collect somewhere.
I studied abroad in India during the fall of 2014, and one of the most immediately apparent features of the cities I visited was the heaps of garbage that lined the sides of roads and filled empty lots due to the country’s lack of a widely used waste management system. Cows graze on plastic bags. Small piles of garbage smoke and ignite. Upon first glance, the amount of trash seems appalling. But in the course of the program, I and the other students discussed with our program director how, although waste in the U.S. feels invisible, we produce much more waste overall than India does, despite having a population a third of the size. According to the World Bank, we produce 624,700 metric tons of waste per day, while India produces 109,589 metric tons of waste per day.
Imagining the quantity of waste the U.S. produces spread out on our streets motivated me to try to drastically reduce the amount of waste I produce. The first change I made was vowing to never buy another disposable water bottle.
Admittedly, it feels nearly impossible to entirely eliminate one’s waste production due to societal factors out of our control. Nearly everything in the grocery store, for example, comes in some sort of packaging. Plastic water bottles are an exception, however, because there is an easy, viable alternative: reusable water bottles. While it’s much harder to change one’s entire diet to avoid foods that come in plastic packaging, one can make carrying a reusable water bottle a habit and therefore prevent large quantities of plastic from entering landfills and oceans.
It’s not only the disposal of the plastic bottle that makes these water bottles environmentally irresponsible to buy. It takes three times as much water to produce a bottle of water than to fill it, which has brought criticism to companies that bottle water in California regardless of the ongoing drought. On top of the water usage is the energy and oil that goes into producing bottled water and the carbon dioxide emitted in the process.
Filling a reusable water bottle with tap water instead of buying a disposable water bottle is better for people’s health, too. Bottled water is subject to fewer regulations than tap water, and chemicals from the bottle leach into the water.
Substituting a reusable water bottle for disposable water bottles is a change each person can make in their lives, but the largest impact will come when institutions adopt policies that encourage widespread change.
In April 2015, Campus Dining did stop selling plastic water bottles for the duration of Earth Week. In collaboration with students and faculty, Campus Dining also implemented an educational campaign about bottled water that included information about where water bottle refill stations are around campus, Associate Vice President for Hospitality Services Amy Muñoz said in an email. At the Earth Day Quad Sit on the Friday of Earth Week, hundreds of students signed a petition to eliminate bottled water, but, Munoz said, the students distributing the petition received “significant push back from students who felt that banning bottled water was a violation of their freedom of choice.” Campus Dining employees also received complaints about the lack of disposable water bottles that week.
The onus for institutional change is on students, as it typically has been on college campuses. Campus services exist to fulfill students’ needs, so we need to show that bottled water is not something we need. The first step students can take is to vote with their money — making a concerted effort to use a reusable water bottle and stop buying bottled water. Students can also tell Campus Dining that this is a change they would like to see through Campus Dining’s online suggestion form.
A common refrain when faced with today’s environmental realities is that one person’s actions do not make a difference. Most would agree that an institution’s do, though. As Occidental students, we have the power to implement change on an institutional level that may not be possible later in life. At this critical time, we must seize this opportunity.
Sarah Corsa is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at email@example.com.