Colleges Shun Bottled Water in Jab at $22 Billion Industry

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bottled water is coming under attack on college campuses.

More than 90 schools, among them Brown and Harvard, are banning the sale or restricting the use of plastic water bottles, unnerving the $22 billion retail packaged-water industry in the United States.

Freshmen at colleges nationwide are being greeted with stainless-steel bottles in their welcome packs and encouraged to use hydration stations where free, filtered water is available. Brown, which once sold about 320,000 bottles of water a year in vending machines and campus stores, ended sales in dining halls in 2010. Harvard and Dartmouth College are installing hydration stations in new buildings to reduce trash.

"The product just doesn't make common sense," said Sarah Alexander, 20, an environmental-studies major at Hanover, N.H.-based Dartmouth. "Companies are taking something that is freely accessible to everyone on the Dartmouth campus, packaging it in a non-reusable container and then selling it under the pretense that it is somehow better than tap water."

In response to the growing movement, the water industry released a video on YouTube last month poking fun at "Ban the Bottle," an organization that advocates banning one-time-use plastic water bottles. The spot, which features "Star Wars"-like music and flashbacks of antiwar demonstrations, says bottled water is a safe, convenient product that is "one of the healthiest drinks on the shelf" and that its packaging is recyclable.

There "are really serious issues over here, and now you're dealing with bottled water?" Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association, based in Alexandria, Va., said. While "there are anti- bottled-water groups going from campus to campus," Doss said he doesn't consider it "a big threat" at this point.

More than 9 billion gallons of bottled water were sold domestically last year, and the industry is growing 5.4 percent a year, according to Gary Hemphill, senior vice president of the Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York consulting firm. Sales to colleges and universities aren't tracked separately.

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