The Battle to Ban Plastic Water Bottles


Members of Pura Playa pose with an informational booth about bottled water. The group recently gained support from Northwestern's Faculty Senate in their campaign to ban disposable plastic water bottles on campus. By Jennifer Ball

Northwestern is just one of many campuses across the nation who is working to eliminate plastic water bottles from being bought and sold on campus. Pura Playa, a group of environmentally-minded engineers, is behind the campaign, called Northwestern Thinks Outside the Bottle.

One reason behind the campaign is the health impacts of plastic bottles. The plastic packaging in disposable water bottles contains chemicals like estrogen that may disrupt the body’s endocrine system, according to a 2011 study from The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. High levels of antimony, a metalloid that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, can also be a risk of plastic bottled water, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Water Research.

Plastic bottles also have a large environmental impact. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated that 32 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 2012. However, only 9 percent of this waste was recovered for recycling. Instead, plastic waste often ends up in the Pacific Ocean, where it spins around in a Texas-sized whirlpool called “The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.”

Despite all this, it’s not easy to get people to change their habits or preferences, says Pura Playa president Clare Terpstra.

“A lot of the reason people have for using bottled water is that it tastes better,” Terpstra says “[But] often tap water tastes even better than bottled water.”

In a sign that people may be willing to make this change, a student resolution passed through the Associated Student Government (ASG) resolving to ban plastic water bottles from campus last May.

“Ever since the resolution passed with ASG, we’ve been working with the faculty to actually have it implemented,” Terpstra says. “One of the main things standing in the way is our contract with Coca-Cola.”

In the fall, Coca-Cola came to campus to speak with Pura Playa. They were not very accepting of the “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign, instead presenting a PowerPoint about how they were doing many things to help the environment. But Pura Playa was not appeased by their presentation. The group continued working with the faculty to continue their effort, and a resolution to ban plastic water bottles passed the faculty senate at the beginning of April.

In an email, Dominique (who did not provide her last name), a representative from Coca-Cola, expressed the company’s objection to banning plastic bottles.

“Simply eliminating plastic bottles only limits personal choice. It doesn’t address the full sustainability picture,” Dominique said. “People should be able to choose how they drink water – from a bottle, from a water fountain or from a refillable bottle,”

The company also stressed the importance of educating the public about recycling, referencing its efforts to advocate for recycling on college campuses.

Loyola University and Washington University in Saint Louis have both already banned plastic water bottles on their campuses, and Harvard University and Duke University are also currently pushing for action.

“It’s definitely a movement,” Terpstra says.

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