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Now banned on campus: bottled water

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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 silly prohibition.

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 alerts.

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 better.

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, Berkeley, and Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.