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There is a new “sin” industry on college campuses. It’s not beer,
fast food or tobacco. It’s water! Universities around the nation have begun to
deny students the option to drink bottled water, removing it from vending
machines and campus stores.
Why? They are following the advice of environmental activist groups that say
students should “drink responsibly” — which to them means tap water. Drinking
bottled water is supposedly wasteful because you get basically the same thing
from a tap. Yet their claims don’t hold water, and surely don’t warrant this
At the extreme is Washington University in St.
Louis, MO. As part of
its “Tap It” campaign, the school took a symbolic step in promoting
sustainability, according to student body representative, Kady McFadden. This
“step” basically banned bottled water from campus stores and vending machines,
except where sales must continue until bottled water contracts expire.
These actions ignore the important reasons why some people choose bottled
water. Among them is predictable quality. Tap water, on the other hand,
periodically experiences quality problems that cause governments issue health
In the spring of 2008, Penn
State — a campus considering
prohibitions on bottled water — declared a tap water health advisory, calling
students to boil water or drink bottled water. Fortunately, it was eventually
determined that the water was OK. Such incidents reveal that overreliance on
tap water doesn’t make sense and why people appreciate other options.
Even places that claim to have exceptional tap water — such as New York City —
experience problems. New York’s Columbia/New York Presbyterian Hospital has
provided bottled water to its patients for drinking and brushing teeth since
2005 after two patients died from Legionnaire’s disease which transmitted via
city tap water. Because tap water must travel through pipes, it can develop
such quality problems along the way.
In addition to safety issues, piped water can suffer flavor defects from
contaminants found in pipes, disinfectants, or from the water source. Some
sources, such as the Potomac River next to Washington D.C.,
are home to species of algae that periodically impact tap water flavor.
This is not to suggest that most tap water isn’t generally pretty safe. The United States
has some of the best quality tap water in the world. However, it is not correct
for environmentalists to deny the unique challenges and quality differences
that tap water possesses. Nor is it fair to deny students and other consumers
the option to pick a product with fewer such issues or one they simply like
In fact, bottled water delivers consistent results. Seventy five percent of
bottled water is drawn from non-municipal sources, such as springs and
aquifers, which provide water on a sustainable long-term basis. Many of these
sources have supplied quality water for decades. Other distributors purify
municipal water, providing a higher quality product than simply opening the
tap, and the packaging ensures the quality is maintained during delivery.
Still opponents of bottled water argue that plastic bottles have been the
source of excessive waste. Yet the bottles contribute less than 0.3 percent of
solid waste, which is managed safely via recycling and landfilling.
This debate over bottled water has taken calls for “dry” campuses to a whole
new level! Many people desire their water will taste just as sweet or crisp as
the last time they bought it. And why not? There is no good reason why anyone
else should deprive them access to those products—on campus or anywhere else.
Charles Huang is a student at the
University of California,
Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., is director of risk and environmental policy at the
Competitive Enterprise Institute.