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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Treading Water

Last week the Trinitonian reported on an initiative by the Association of Student Representatives and Students Organized for Sustainability to eliminate bottled water from campus. The University Sustainability Committee supports this as well. While the story reported that this would be a long, difficult process, in the end, it is really simple. We have been here before. In the end, students will determine the outcome in their roles as consumers and they the freedom to do so.

Unless one works for a plastics manufacturer, nearly everyone supports the reduction of plastic bottles in our environment. Our University President made a statement on the issue when he arrived on campus and told offices that the University wouldn't pay to stock offices with bottled water. It gets trickier when it comes to retail sales on campus.
As we have learned with dining changes this year, people generally want the University to offer a choice. In the dining hall it has been about healthy-only choices versus a broader variety.

A few years ago the vending company that Trinity contracts with added bottled water to the machines on campus. Bottled water sales now make up the bulk of vending revenue. Likewise, the dining locations on campus do a profitable business selling water. To remove these items may drive students to energy drinks and sodas, which have their own health-related baggage. Or, students would likely buy cases of water elsewhere. Ultimately, though, soda and Monster don't come out of drinking fountains -- water does.

In trying to improve or alter the campus culture, small groups of students have pushed for change. The honor code was initiated by a small, passionate group of students. The same was true of the golf cart escort program (which was supposed to be student-run). Students also started the plastics recycling program but it was taken over by the University because there weren't enough student volunteers to maintain the program. A small group also pushed to remove Styrofoam to-go containers from campus. After an intense campaign, students continued to use the containers when given other options. Even now, while some push for a bottled-water ban, others dump trash in recycled bins because they don't have time to sort. This contamination means that the whole bin is treated as trash. The first step the student leaders in this initiative need to take is to create student-wide buy-in.

In addition, the University would likely love to extend the stance of the President on bottled water throughout campus, but that isn't risk free. Students will see this as heavy-handed and some may say that with robust water sales the University fixed something that wasn't broken. This means that those students who want to make change must own change. ASR pushed for the Sophomore College and for dining changes but when the changes became reality either flipped or remained very quiet. If ASR and SOS make a compelling case to eliminate bottled water, they need to show that the majority want this change and then take the heat when there is push-back.

In the past, students have asked for a shuttle on campus to take students to and from parties. Such a program was panned by our insurance carrier but would have been extremely expensive and difficult to manage. Besides, identifying designated drivers is free, instant, and generally safe. While I don't suggest a water boycott, the students and employees on campus can make change starting today. Stop buying bottled water. True activism doesn't wait for bureaucracy.
The University will look at retrofitting some water fountains to make it easier to get water out of the drinking fountains on campus. But it isn't as though we are asking students to pump water from a well. Tilt the bottle, wait a few seconds, and be on your way. ASR has reserves that could help fund these retrofits today. Will they support this initiative with student fee money? Will students support that?

Trinity University values direct student empowerment. The Honor Council is student-run. The Student Conduct Board has authority to speak for the community with no staff voice included. Upper-class residents are housed where they can be autonomous and control their own environment. Residential Life decided to allow students in the residence halls to vote on whether or not each hall should be smoke-free or not. So again, students get to decide directly about their environment. For now, the University will continue to sell bottled water and look at the water fountain retrofits. Ultimately, then, as it should be, students will decide about this issue starting today. Or not.

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