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Bottled water versus drinking fountains: a clash of ideals on campus
February 24, 2023
Southern Illinois University is a green campus, figuratively and literally.
In a literal sense, the staggering amount of trees and foliage present on the campus produce a wonderful green color for the majority of the year.
SIU is figuratively green, too. They were again named in The Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges: 2023, one of only 455 institutions to earn the honor.
“They have been a leader, there’s no question,” said Jim Wall, a professor in the journalism department who has taught at SIU for 23 years in addition to completing undergraduate school there.
SIU also has a large recycling program, with hundreds of tons of material being collected every year. However, there is one area where onlookers could assert that SIU is lagging behind.
In a world where reducing plastic usage and waste, especially plastic water bottles, is becoming more and more mainstream, it remains somewhat difficult for students to actually do so. There are very few places on campus where it is possible to easily refill a reusable bottle without considerable effort and a major mess.
Sometimes, it’s too easy. People run out the door, grab a plastic bottle from the $7 pack of 24 bottles to make sure they have a drink and are on the way.
They finish the bottle, throw it away, and don’t have a second thought about the entire process. The notion of recycling is usually off of the radar.
At SIU, one doesn’t have to go too far to recycle their bottle. SIU’s sustainability office, together with the Sustainability Council [which is funded by the university’s Green Fee and included in student fees], has populated the campus heavily with various recycling cans. It often seems like there is a recycling can in nearly every room.
“I have noticed quite extensively, bins for [recycling], at various buildings and various locations on campus” Wall said.
SIU’s efforts have earned them praise from several sources.
“I believe they do a pretty good job with recycling as a whole… and have kind of tried to take the lead in that respect in encouraging all programs, and all buildings, and all departments… to at least do what they can” Wall said.
Still, one has to make a conscious choice to make sure their bottle ends up in there. And therein lies the problem; it’s a choice.
Wall said, “It’s a habit, like any other habit, and habits are hard to establish. But, with recycling, even if folks individually were to start small, in a small way, that could have a larger impact without even knowing it.”
The Princeton Review classifies a college as Green based off of several questions. Among them is “how environmentally responsible a school’s policies are.”
According to Dave Tippy, the Superintendent of Grounds and overseer of SIU’s recycling program, the program is “multi-faceted, consisting of paper, cardboard, commingle, metal, food waste, concrete, asphalt, and landscape waste recycling.”
Tippy says it is difficult to “give an accurate amount on plastic alone since most of our plastic is recycled as comingle glass/plastic/aluminum.” But, nearly 43,000 pounds of this commingled material were collected in 2021, making for a large environmental impact even with glass and aluminum included.
It is again difficult to say how many bottles are simply thrown away, as the bulk of garbage is generated from “literally thousands of offices and dorm rooms across campus” [Tippy].
This recycling effort is valuable for campus and for the world. Keeping plastic bottles out of landfills and the environment is beneficial, as plastic water bottles are made of PET [polyethylene terephthalate] plastics. According to the World Wildlife Fund of Australia, PET bottles nearly take 450 years to decompose.
PET bottles have a big impact on the environment beyond simple decomposition.
Consumption of PET bottles rose rapidly as the bottled water industry, initially an alternative to unsafe public water, exploded in the 1990s due to Coca-Cola and Pepsi producing their own brands, Dasani and Aquafina respectively. America alone uses 17 million barrels of crude oil to make plastic bottles, to the tune of 29 billion. And according to National Geographic, only one in six of those bottles ever makes it to a recycling bin.
While it’s impossible to say with full confidence how much people actually recycle, there have been efforts around campus that lend strength to the ideas that more than one of six plastic bottles is recycled or that the use of plastic bottles is being reduced.
“I have seen an awful lot more people, students and staff and faculty and everybody, bringing their own [bottle] and refilling it,” Wall said.
One thing that has been hailed as a savior in the sustainability world, specifically related to water, is the bottle filling station.
These devices are increasing in popularity, especially in a world that is ever more conscious of viral diseases due to the COVID-19 pandemic and cognizant of the environmental changes the world is undergoing.
There are several styles of bottle fillers; some are spigots, while others are sensor-controlled dispensers. Almost all of these are mounted in tandem with a water fountain, for obvious reasons regarding plumbing.
Yet, there just aren’t very many around SIU’s campus.
Mark Owens, the Director of Facilities and Energy Management at SIU, said “We do not have an inventory of drinking fountains or bottle fillers.”
Due to the size of SIU’s campus, it would be a considerable undertaking to form a catalog of every single water fountain and subsequent bottle filler.
A sample of 10 educational buildings across SIU’s campus was taken, in which the number of water stations that included a bottle filler component was measured. There were only 21 fillers as opposed to 98 water stations. Water stations that had two water fountains were only counted as one fountain due to their close proximity. This means that there is only a filler available [in the sampled buildings] on 21% of stations.
While this percentage is not guaranteed to be consistent around campus, it did hold up between the 10 buildings sampled; while some had more and others had less, there was a consistent average of roughly 21% of the stations including a bottle filler.
These fillers are few and far between on campus, at least right now.
Jordan Kruse, a student at SIU, said, “Sometimes they’re pretty out of the way… I’d have to go to the other side of the building depending on where my class is to get one of those bottle fillers.”
The university is in the process of installing more fillers, though.
“When a drinking fountain is replaced, we go back with a bottle filler type whenever possible,” Owens said.
Part of the reason that there may not be a larger amount of fillers is due to the logistics of installing one.
“Typically, the electrical and plumbing rough-in locations of the new [water fountains with bottle fillers] do not match the old so the wall has to be opened up and then patched and painted,” Owens said.
These issues make fillers expensive; parts and labor “averages around $1500 [per unit],” according to Owens.
But progress is progress. Kruse especially thinks that getting more fillers is a positive thing.
“I don’t think there could be enough, honestly… These bottle fillers are obviously more filtered, and so it’s better water, so the more of those we could have would be great” Kruse said.
These fillers save water, too. According to Dora Wong, a spokesperson for Coca-Cola [Dasani], it takes almost 166% of the amount of water in the bottle to fill a bottle of Dasani water.
SIU’s fillers are sometimes bought with money and grants from the Student Green Fee [which is included on one’s bursar bill as a part of the “General Student Fee”] as a part of the Green Fund Grant Program; numerous fountains around campus bear stickers with the words, “Student Green Fee.”
It is clear that bottle fillers are of growing importance around campus; many of the fillers found bore stickers with those same words on them. The biggest remaining issue at this point in time is the continued funding and installation of these fillers. Support certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue.
Kruse thinks that these fillers are even more convenient than bottled water, an encouraging sign for having more fillers and also for the decreasing amount of plastic around campus.
“Think about the amount of times I’ve filled this [reusable bottle] up. I mean, the amount of water bottles I would’ve had to buy to equal that is a ridiculous amount, so I’ve saved money, and I think it’s a lot easier” Kruse said.
According to Jim Wall, recycling is an education process.
“We’ve had step one… everyone knows what the symbol is. Now, we have to get people to do it,” Wall said.
As more people are educated about recycling, they will realize how important it really is for both campus and the world. SIU has a growing infrastructure in place, one that is advancing and making SIU an even more eco-friendly establishment as it heads into a green future.
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