Two weeks into the new year as University of Vermont students resume classes on the snow-covered Burlington campus, something is missing: bottled water. UVM is the latest university to ban on-campus sales of bottled water.
At one of UVM’s recently retrofitted refill stations, students fill up their reusable bottles with tap water. For many of the 14,000 students and staff on this campus, topping off their refillable bottles is an old habit.
“It’s much more convenient to fill up your water bottle at a water fountain than to buy bottled water,” says Mikayla McDonald, a recent graduate, who a few years ago helped to launch the campaign that led to UVM’s ban. McDonald hopes it will reduce waste. But for her, it’s not just about changing behavior on campus.
“Bottled water is a symbol of our culture’s obsession with commodifying things that should be public trust resources,” she says.
In that spirit, a few other American colleges have restricted or banned the sale of bottled water to promote sustainability. But the University of Vermont is the largest public institution to do so, and that development disappoints beverage companies.
“I think they’re concerned because it’s such a radical step,” says lobbyist Andrew MacLean, who represents local water and soft drink distributors in Vermont. He agrees with the students’ environmental goals, but he thinks an outright ban restricts free choice and will ultimately fail.
“The factors that will result in more materials getting out of landfills is going to be a cooperative effort promoting strong recycling,” he argues.
But at least one New England town says recycling isn’t enough to keep plastic bottles out of its waste stream. Concord, Mass. — perhaps best known for its role in the American Revolution — joined the student movement this month, outlawing the sale of single-serve plastic water bottles in its stores.