Review to focus on water packaging, not product

Devan C. Tasa, News Editor Ω

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: TRU is conducting a review of drink containers on campus.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: TRU is conducting a review of drink containers on campus.

For those that desire a drink, there’s something that costs $2 per bottle – yet can also be had for free. That drink is water.

Environmental activists at universities all over Canada have been demanding the sale of bottled water be banned on campuses, saying that because the substance is so readily available, bottling it is a waste of resources that harms the environment.

“We, along with our partners across the country, other students’ unions, have been working towards eliminating the sale of bottled water on campus because of the harmful effects of the commodification of water and the harmful [environmental] effects of the plastic bottle that bottled water comes in,” said Dylan Robinson, TRUSU’s vice president external.

Vancouver Island University (VIU) was the first university in B.C. to ban sales of bottled water. In September 2011, the university and its students’ union signed a pledge to be free of bottled water by June 2012.

Yet this achievement by VIU doesn’t have to stop TRU from being a pioneer in its own way. Instead of focusing on the product of bottled water, TRUSU decided to change the focus of its three-year-old Students for Sustainability campaign.

“Over the past summer, the TRU Students Union re-evaluated our Students for Sustainability campaign,” Robinson said, “and we decided that the best way to actually achieve a ban on bottled water on campuses would be to instead of focusing on the product, focus on the container the product comes from.”

The students union promoted the issue on campus, giving out reusable water bottles and collecting approximately 2,700 signatures calling for action from the university. That resulted in TRU’s vice president of finance ordering a review, to take place between January and March 2013, of the containers of beverages sold on campus.

VIUSU campaigns to ban the product

The VIU Students’ Union (VIUSU) year-long campaign to ban bottled water began by alerting students about the issue, said Patrick Barbosa, one of the students union staff that worked on the campaign. They did that by using petitions provided by the Canadian Federations of Students own Students for Sustainability campaign.

“Those petitions really opened up the door to have a conversation about what it meant to be drinking water out of a bottle,” Barbosa said.

With the petition showing a broad base of support among VIU student, the students union approached the university to discuss the issue. VIU had a few concerns: administration there wanted to know what other stakeholder groups such as the faculty and three unions on campus thought. So VIUSU approached them and got their support.

“After that point, the biggest stumbling block was the water infrastructure,” Barbosa said.

Much of VIU was designed at a time where water fountains were not a large consideration.

“The reality was we had a shortfall of water fountains and other infrastructure to give access to clean, safe tap water,” Barbosa said. “We worked with the university to develop an infrastructure plan. We had to do an inventory of what water fountains were available, where we needed to put replacement water fountains and the cost of the water fountains.”

As well, the students union had to engage those selling food on campuses to convince them not to provide bottled water.

It was around this time in the campaign that the bottled water companies started to fight back.

The Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA) said that bottled water is not in competition with tap water, but was actually a healthier alternative to soda.

“Our industry does not compete with tap water, we’re simply here as an alternative to other packaged beverages,” said Elizabeth Griswold, the CBWA’s executive director, in a press release.

Barbosa does not buy that argument.

“Rationally, when you think about it, when you’re thirsty and I want a glass of water, I don’t go, ‘Oh, well, I can’t find any water, I’m going to have some Pepsi,’” he said.

In the end, the university choose to ban bottled water.

“Since then, we’ve had absolutely no student backlash,” Barbosa said. “There’s been no outcry for access to bottled water. We’ve increased the infrastructure on campus and have a renewed commitment to the environment.”

TRU to look at the container

“The issue of what containers are more or less damaging the environment has been around for quite some time now,” said Tom Owen, TRU’s director of sustainability. “It often centres on bottled water and plastic containers, but this one is a broader issue. [We’re] looking at containers generally, not just [one product.] So we’ll look at glass bottles, water, Tetra Paks, everything.

“We’re not looking at bottled water. We’re looking at the beverage containers. It’s a different focus altogether.”

The TRU review will look at the environmental and sustainability impact, economic and financial impact, choice, health and safety and contractual limitations and implications of each drink container. It will look at the scientific literature, as well as consult a large number of stakeholders including students, staff and vendors.

“We’re inviting anybody who has a contact with the community,” Owen said. “We’re casting that net fairly widely. We’ve kept it wide open because everybody’s opinions are most welcome.”

The first presentation of stakeholders will begin on the week of Feb. 25.

After Owen has considered all of the material, he will then make recommendations to the board of governors in their meeting at the end of April.

Robinson expressed happiness at the planned review.

“We’re excited that they are launching the process, we’re happy they’re taking this issue seriously and we’re looking forward to participate in the whole review,” he said.

The focus on the container is particularly important because bottled water companies are now providing products like Vitamin Water to circumvent the bans, Robinson said. Yet, Barbosa said he hasn’t noticed an increase in the beverage.

Robinson said he believe the scientific evidence is on the side of banning the sale of non-reusable plastic bottles, but added he couldn’t know the results until the review is over.

“We’re in new territory, because nobody in Canada, as far as I’m aware, has successfully banned the sale of non-reusable plastic bottles,” he said. “We’re forging a new path and being a leader in sustainability when it comes to that, so it’s kind of cool.”