Point Institute the Ban
by Emma Erickson
Counterpoint Don’t Institute The Ban
by Avery Robinson
We live in a world where we are at odds with our environment. For most people, day-to-day life is a race to see how much of this planet’s resources we can consume and how much we can contaminate the natural world. This accusation should take you aback. You probably don’t consciously perform these actions and would admonish a person for partaking in them blatantly. Our problem is that environmental degradation is built into the way our society functions and the cyclical systems in which we all operate. It is the desire to break these fundamental assumptions and status quo modes of operation that lead me to support banning water bottle use on the campus of the University of Michigan.
The idea for the ban originated last year with Maggie Oliver, an LSA senior and chair of the Michigan Student Assembly’s Environmental Issues Commission (EIC). Hoping to improve UM’s environmental impact by instituting a ban on the sale of plastic water bottles by the University, Oliver and the EIC circulated a petition in support of these goals during the Winter term of last year. The petition drive was highly successful, garnering thousands of signatures, and Oliver hopes to take her ban request to the Board of Regents to actually institute change in University policy.
So why should the regents support the ban? Most important, there is an overwhelming environmental case against the sale of plastic water bottles. The plastic used to make these bottles is manufactured from corn, petroleum, and other chemicals. Not only does the extraction of petroleum pose environmental risks (see the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico last summer), but water bottles themselves also generate an enormous quantity of waste. In 2006, for instance, according to the Government Accountability Office, the United States produced roughly one million tons of plastic PET water bottles, three quarters of which ended up in landfills, and will take thousands of years to decompose.
There are also individual health risks entailed by the use of plastic bottles. Though most plastic in its finished form is not toxic, certain types—including phthalates, a variety found in many plastic bottles—can leach into food. The Environmental Protection Agency and independent researchers have suggested that these plastics may disrupt the endocrine system or act as carcinogens.
Given these arguments, though, you might wonder why we should specifically ban water bottles. Plenty of other soft drinks and beverages are packaged in plastic bottles; shouldn’t we ban them, too? In an ideal world, such a broad ban would be a perfect outcome, but given the constraints of the real world, there are a couple reasons why banning water bottles specifically is a good idea. One is that nearly half of all “purified” bottled water begins as municipal water. In other words, by buying this water we are paying for water that is readily available at our taps and drinking fountains. Additionally, according to the National Resources Defense Council, over 90% of the cost of a water bottle is not water related, like packaging, shipping, and marketing. It is cheaper and simpler for both water providers and consumers to deliver water at the tap, at fountains, or at refill stations. This argument, of course, does not apply to Gatorade or Red Bull, but it is a reasonable and workable solution for the delivery of water. Hopefully in the future we will develop a means of providing individuals with dispersed access to beverages in containers whose production has no negative impact; for now, banning plastic water bottles in order to reduce the environmental, health and economic costs of plastic bottle production and consumption is the best place to start tackling this issue.
Finally, critics of the ban may object that, by eliminating bottled water for purchase at UM, we would be infringing on consumer choice and rights of the University community. Shouldn’t everyone have the freedom to choose whatever beverage he or she desires? This concern is misguided for two reasons. Governmental and institutional regulations already ban the sale of certain products—we are now a smoke free campus after all—and the water bottle ban simply builds on this logic of restriction in the interest of protecting the health and well-being of consumers.
Of course UM students would still have access to the very same water they currently find in purchased bottles. By combing the ban with a massive education campaign that encourages students to use personal, reusable water bottles, and by installing more refill stations in buildings around campus, we can make it clear that good, clean water is more easily and cheaply available to them than ever.
As long as bottled water continues to be available and sustainability education is slow, people will continue to use them. Our University is a sustainability leader in many ways, but it lags behind many of its peer institutions in operational standards for environmental friendliness. If the regents boldly accept MSA’s petition, they would back the University’s claim of being a leader in sustainability and help the student body and the entire UM community lead the way to a greener, more sustainable future.
We live in a highly disposable world where everything comes packaged, almost always in a bottle or a container. Not just milk and juice, but herbs, fruit, memory cards and even water.
Disposable and recyclable plastic bottles, like almost all conventional plastics, are synthetic materials derived from petroleum. These petrochemicals form the basis of our consumer-driven economy. While comprising a significant portion of our economy, plastics undeniably pose disposal problems. Despite these problems, however, I disagree with the MSA proposal that plastic water bottles be banned from U of M’s campus.
First, consider the water itself. The odds are that the water you buy at convenience stores and vending machines is very similar to the water coming out of the tap because it is, more often than not, tap water. A number of very competent and effective federal and state agencies regulate bottled water production. In Michigan, this includes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) Water Section, and some municipal water authorities. The FDA applies very similar standards to water bottle production as it does to other foods and beverages. Therefore, if the argument for banning water bottles is based on poor regulation (and safety), it is flawed. But there is much more to this ban than just plastic bottles and water quality.
Just because you can get the water in that flimsy, petrochemical bottle from a tap does not mean we should ban bottled water. If that were the case, we should also ban bags of ice.
The environmental costs of trucking water are not a valid basis for a ban. Do we ban bananas? Coffee? Tuna? By focusing on environmental concerns alone, we ignore the strong impact such a ban would have on public health, social justice, and civil liberties.
We should allow our state legislators to handle the environmental concerns around recycling and waste. Almost every water bottle is recyclable, but a consumers’ only incentive to recycle these bottles are peer pressure and a sense of altruism. These disincentives do not apply to other returnable goods in our state. In fact, Michigan is one of the leading states in terms of cans and bottles being returned and recycled. If our legislators provided bottled water deposits, I guarantee that recycling rates would skyrocket.
Second, let’s talk about health. Drinking water—bottled or in a glass—is way healthier than drinking pop (read soda or Coca-Cola for you non-Michiganders). Water contains no calories, no sugar, no salt and no extra chemicals. The same is not true for other bottled beverages, which contain large quantities of calories, sugars, salts and chemicals few of us can pronounce.
We must consider all health effects of the ban including its unintended consequences. By removing bottled water from the shelves of vending machines and campus cafés, such a ban would push students toward making unhealthy consumptive decisions. Studies have shown that drinking pop and other non-water refreshments can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Third, removing bottled water from campus stores and vending machines may infringe on the freedoms and civil liberties we enjoy as Americans. If I want to purchase a bottle of water instead of a bottle of carbonated water laced with corn syrup, caffeine, caramel color and natural and artificial flavors, I should be able to. Why should my dollar be disenfranchised in a way that benefits already-subsidized big agriculture and big business?
Fourth, let’s talk about social policy and education. I always carry a reusable water bottle with me, but is it reasonable to expect 40,000 students, 30,000 faculty/staff and thousands of campus visitors to always have a reusable water bottle available? Is it reasonable that we expect others to know about our quirky Ann Arbor laws? Do we have enough drinking fountains on campus to handle a surge in use?
While banning water bottle sales on campus may help reduce plastic waste and related environmental degradation, there is a better way to solve our plastic bottle problem without harming public health or infringing on the civil liberties of consumers. We should educate the campus and the community about the benefits of reusing a water bottle. Some ways include: becoming more cognizant of our own environmental impact; being able to quench our thirst beyond 8, 12 or 20 oz; finding a great place for stickers; and making a conscious decision to mitigate unnecessary consumerism and waste. We can also strive to ensure that prices of bottled water and pop adequately reflect the cost of these items. This means prices should not just be based on the cost of production and transportation, but also the ecological effects of resource extraction.
If we do not understand or internalize these messages, then there will never be a cultural change in our consumptive habits. We must all encourage one another to reuse our water bottles (and other containers). I will continue to use my Nalgene and aluminum water bottles and encourage others to do so. Your friends may not be aware of this, so please remind them—reduce, reuse, recycle, and most importantly, be responsible.
About the Issue
Point author: Emma Erickson is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She majored in Chemistry and minored in Program in the Environment (PitE).
Counterpoint author: Avery Robinson is a senior in PitE (focusing on sustainable urbanism), Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies, and Cultural Anthropology. He is the schmoozalufugus at Michigan (president of Schmooze, the Jewish culture club) and involved in verious groups and activities through Hillel.
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer and Matt Friedrichs
Cover by: Jill Brandewein