At first blush, Yale seems to be the model sustainable university. Last month, President Richard Levin sent out an e-mail discussing Yale’s Sustainability Task Force, whose goals include reducing waste, improving recycling habits and using less energy. The 2011 College Sustainability Report Card awarded Yale an “A” grade and ranks it the second most sustainable university in the Ivy League. But in spite of these accolades, a few glaring shortcomings remain. One of the most flagrant examples is Yale’s own brand of bottled water, which by its very existence flies in the face of Yale’s self-stated goals and contradicts the image of Yale as a leader in sustainable efforts.
The production of bottled water takes a harsh toll on the environment. A typical one-liter plastic bottle, cap and packaging requires 3.4 megajoules of energy to make — more energy than it takes to drive an average car one mile. Additional energy is needed to fill the bottles with water, transport them to the consumer, refrigerate the water in homes and stores, and throw away or recycle the empty bottles. Despite Americans’ recycling efforts, three-fourths of the half-billion plastic water bottles sold weekly in the United States end up in landfills, and it costs our cities more than $70 million to put them there.
The high cost of bottled water carries significant consequences. Bottled water costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water. In this country, where we have one of the cleanest public water systems in the world, bottled water companies with clever marketing departments have convinced us that our water is unsafe for consumption, and that we should spend large sums of money on their plastic-encased alternative. While we spend unnecessary money on water, one billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water. The United Nations estimates that with one-third of the annual amount of money spent on bottled water, clean water could be provided to all those who currently do not have access.
In the absence of administrative action against bottled water, different groups at Yale are trying to counteract bottled water’s negative consequences. Think Outside the Bottle, a student environmental group, has already adopted supported a few bottled water alternatives, such as Yale Dining’s Hydration Station, which is a portable water cooler that, when connected to any water spigot, provides chilled, filtered tap water. The Station has allowed several student events, including Rumble at Trumbull and a sophomore class festival, to be bottled water-free. Many institutions have also adopted sustainability efforts, including the Afro-American Cultural Center with its Black and Green Sustainability Initiative, and Jonathan Edwards College, whose buttery no longer sells bottled water.
You can get involved, too. Rather than spending money and energy on bottled water, Yale students can support the college’s sustainable efforts by giving tap water a try. Tap water is far better regulated than bottled water, but if purity remains a concern, filtered water pitchers are readily available at the Bookstore. Students can also use the pitchers to fill reusable water bottles, which provide the same convenience as bottled water, but for a one-time purchase.
Yale is indeed making strides toward becoming a truly sustainable university. However, it is critical that the Yale community question the necessity of Yale’s own brand, as well as the very practice of buying bottled water. Making the transition from consuming bottled water to drinking tap is a first step in excluding bottled water from the “culture of sustainability” that President Levin urges Yale to foster. And if enough of us adopt the tap water alternative, the need for Yale’s bottled water brand to appear at campus events may one day evaporate.
Ifeanyi Awachie is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.