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A Ripple Effect

Students work with administrators to end the sale of bottled water and add more refill stations

After a decade of disagreement, students and administrators at Central Michigan University are working together to end bottled water sales on campus.

Central Michigan University officials, with the support of Take Back the Tap, will install 10 new water bottle refill stations on campus each year until they are available in every building. The Market will not sell single-use water bottles beginning March 13, for the spring semester and will instead sell Hydro Flask reusable water bottles. 

The RSO wants the university to phase out the sale of single-use water bottles on campus by educating students and administrators about the negative economic, environmental and health effects of bottled water.

"The university should not be invested in the idea that water is (a) commodity, because it's not. It's a basic human right," said Allison LaPlatt, president of the student organization.

It took years for administrators to embrace the student group's suggestions. LaPlatt and her organization are hoping their success in working with like-minded administrators causes a ripple effect for other RSOs on campus.

A drop in the pond

Inside a candle-lit church prayer room, five college students patiently held small paper cups. After reciting an Anishinaabe prayer over a steel kettle, a woman with long grey braids poured cold water into the vessels.

By sipping the water, Kyle Platt, a Grand Ledge senior, and other members of the Student Environmental Alliance, showed the woman support in protecting the indigenous communities' freshwater systems. The ceremony was held by the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, an activist group based 45 miles from Mount Pleasant. They focus on preventing Nestlé from taking advantage of the state's water policies. 

Giving voice to environmental issues may not be a popular hobby for many students but this year, members of Student Environmental Alliance saw the impact of their Take Back the Tap chapter. 

Take Back The Tap reached out to the department of purchasing and contracts at the university, but after years of working with one administrator and without progression toward their goal, they realized they were hitting a wall. 

Instead, members of the organization decided to build a list of administrators they could work with. The first step to doing this was acknowledging issues on campus which defer from stopping the purchase of single-use water bottles. 

Almost 500,000 20-ounce beverages were sold in campus stores managed by Aramark from August 2014 to May 2015. Bottled water sales comprised appr

oximately 10 percent of total sales.

Students were able to read over contracts with Pepsi dating back to 1997. CMU purchases seven different sized Aquafina brands ranging from $9.62 to $17 per 24-pack through the company. The contract is renewed every five years, and is up for renewal this year. 

Their first position was to make sure every floor on campus has a water bottle refill station. Next, they knew they needed the financial support from CMU to meet that goal.

The RSO reached out to Vice President of Finance and Administrative Services Barrie Wilkes to make their case to increase the number of water bottle refill stations in on-campus buildings. 

Wilkes seemed interested in that idea.

"To me it makes sense," Wilkes said. "I see more and more students with reusable bottles. I asked them to come back with a list of buildings which need the stations the most."

The organization went back with a list of prospective locations based on the amount of foot traffic each building receives. They suggested the university develop a plan to install refill stations at those locations.

"We agreed to do that," Wilkes said.

CMU will provide enough funding to install 10 refill stations each year until every floor of every building on campus has one. Each refill station costs about $1,500 to install.

To raise awareness for their project, LaPlatt and Take Back The Tap members presented the plan to Aramark Resident District Manager Tyson Dubay. Aramark is contracted by the university to provide dining services.

Dubay has worked with Take Back The Tap campaigns in the past. He agreed to allow the RSO to post stickers on the refill stations with information about the effects of single-use water bottles.

"We want people to know about the economic, environmental and health effects single-use water bottles impose on society," LaPlatt said. "No one accounts for how many water bottles they've used and where they've ended up. Nearly 50 billion plastic water bottles end up in U.S. landfills each year."

Dubay also agreed to stop the sale of single-use water bottles in The Market on campus. Instead, The Market will sell Hydro Flasks, a type of reusable water bottle, and students can use FLEX dollars to purchase them.

More than 70 colleges and universities have passed full or partial bans on bottled water sales, including Kalamazoo College. 

More than a hundred more universities, like CMU, have taken steps to improving access to public tap water by installing filling stations on their campuses and advocating for the use of reusable water bottles.

Although the university has not fully divested from purchasing single-use bottled water, Wilkes said the initiative and drive Take Back The Tap has is not going unnoticed.

"The student's I've met with in Take Back The Tap over the past few years are a very impressive group of people," Wilkes said. "They're doing a really good job of addressing this issue." 

LaPlatt said after meeting with university administrators, the RSO has received a unanimous answer — there needs to a unified student voice asking the university to end bottled water sales.

"The university needs to see us, the students, stop purchasing these single-use water bottles," LaPlatt said. "As nice as it is to hear students say they support our cause, the university needs more. Students have to stop purchasing the product. The demand (must) no longer exist."

If students continue to buy bottled water, the university will continue to provide it.

"What I'd like to see is everyone stops purchasing bottled water and get a refillable bottle instead," Wilkes said. "There are so many ways to get away from buying these single-use bottles."

Wilkes said if the market decides to permanently stop the sale of single-use water bottles he would like to believe the university will consider doing the same.