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On The Bottled Water Issue

posted Feb 27, 2010, 1:35 PM by Student Senate   [ updated Feb 21, 2011, 5:43 PM ]
(from the Review) by KALAN SHERRARD

Here’s to add to the hullabaloo surrounding bottled water — or rather, to straighten out some confusion that’s been buzzing.

First of all, it’s rhetorically confusing to call the thing before us a bottled water “ban.” What it ought to be called is the stopping of bottled water purchases and sales by Oberlin College. No one’s going to ticket you or arrest you if you’re carrying around a bottle of water. But, with luck, it won’t be in the vending machines; it won’t be provided at events; eventually it won’t be in Campus Dining Services at all — and it won’t be in the five-gallon jugs littering offices and corridors.

To begin with a little history, the bottled water ban started last spring when the Senate voted (narrowly, though with two votes cast against and many abstentions) to resolve against Oberlin’s continued allowance of bottled water commerce on campus.

The later results of a referendum showed overwhelming support among the student body at large to cease purchases and sales, and at my behest, we informed the Committee on Environmental Sustainability of our decision this fall. Several weeks later, the committee sent us back a memo supporting our resolve, which we would have only to bring before the General Faculty (of which we are nominal members) for a vote that would ultimately pass the regulation. However, at this junction, several of the new senators balked — not, mind you, from any corporate intrigue, behind-the-scenes politicking or anything of the sort — but from honest concern for the small local business, White House Artesian Springs, from which we purchase our drips.

We considered. We weighed pros and cons. And we gave it a slap on the back and sent it on up to the finals.

Here are the statistics: the guys at White House estimated that Oberlin is one of their top 5 to 10 customers, supplying about 1 to 2 percent of their total revenue. They send a truck down here every 10 days, loaded with (approximately) 25 percent small individual bottles, and 75 percent five-gallon jugs in dispensers. The vast majority of water consumption on campus is, in fact, by faculty, not students at all.

Now on to the philosophy of the matter. For those of us in favor of the ban, this is not primarily about plastic. It’s about the commodification of water, which is an essential product and must not be bought and sold for profit. This is a social justice issue. While it’s convenient, and a worthwhile goal, to lessen our consumption of petroleum products at the same time, we would obviously be getting rid of the huge corporate products (Pepsi, look out!) first if that were the central goal. And Oberlin does ban Coke products. But there is a fundamental difference between banning a product and banning a brand. We don’t want to change who we lend our support to as consumers, but change our relationship to our water fundamentally, to decommercialize it.

The packaging and sale of water is one of the most outrageous scams of our generation, and we have to wean ourselves away from it, never mind the obsessively antiseptic industry propaganda. We can drink our tap water, and if we still have concerns about its quality, we can get filters.

On that note, I want to be sure to applaud Michele Gross, the director of CDS, who has been extraordinarily supportive and went far out of her way to support our resolution even before the General Faculty vote was being considered. Gross has already phased bottled water out of a few venues. The dining committee researched water filtration systems to install in DeCaf� and at the Science Center Cart (similar models could easily be put in Rice and other buildings), and will likely be selling safe, reusable containers for personal transportation of water. So for those of you who are worried about the quality of water in your faucets, there will be plenty of filtered water to be had.

This will be the 50th time I’ve recounted this vignette, but some months ago, a friend of mine overheard two fellas chatting in a bar a little ways south. When one maintained the unsustainability of coal, the other countered that “Oberlin has it, so it must be okay.” That is to say that whether we like it or not, we set the bar and are viewed as a model community. We can be exemplary and can lead other communities to make the right choices, so that when folks visit us, whether they be speakers, parents or down-and-out travelers, they can be inspired to bring ideas away with them to fertilize in other places.

Please talk to your professors and impress upon them the importance of our exit from the mire of water peddling. We need all the votes we can get.