Not Just a Number

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I’ve been one of the presidents of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) at Northwestern for almost a full quarter now, and yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to a very diverse group of leaders at the Office of Student Affairs’ quarterly Student Advisory Board dinner. ESW brought the issue of going bottled-water free to the board because we are gaining momentum with our NU Thinks Outside the Bottle Campaign, and I wanted to share with HELIX what I said to that group.

I’m going to start with a fact I hope you’ve heard; about one gallon of additional water is used to make one gallon of bottled water. One is just a number, though, so I think it’s worth probing deeper. Who amongst you HELIX readers can describe off the top of your head how that water is used in the industrial process?

People are surprised that Think Outside the Bottle, and policy campaigns in general, fall under ESW. But, we do it because we study manufacturing processes at the McCormick School of Engineering. When we hear one gallon, we can immediately picture some of it being used to wash away toxic, volatile ingredients and byproducts of polymer chemistry – all those acronyms you hear when the media tells you not to microwave food in plastic containers. We can immediately imagine that water being heated by fossil fuels and being returned to streams either too hot or too polluted.

Manufacturing isn’t wasteful by default; that’s not the point I’m trying to make. But, with the mention of streams, I’ve already arrived at how bottled-water manufacturing is wasteful. It has a lot to do with the fact that water moves on its own. Water flows downhill. When it rains in Michigan, that water arrives in Chicago on its own. Therefore, commercially transporting water is inherently unnecessary and wasteful.

At McCormick, we learn how to calculate how much fossil fuel would be required to truck bottled water from Nestle’s plant in Michigan to Chicago. But, since that water would get here anyway, the amount calculated will always be too much. Whichever number you choose, be it one gallon of additional water or up to 32 times the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions seen in tap water systems, that number implies a vast life cycle of waste for bottled water. This awareness makes it really easy for engineers to get behind the anti-bottled-water movement.

ESW just passed a resolution through NU’s Associated Student Government in support of making Northwestern bottled-water free and has begun the contract negotiation process to prevent the sale of bottled water on campus and the use of bottled water for events catered by Sodexo, the University’s food services provider. This monumental achievement is due to years of petitions and pledges, and the implementation of sustainable water infrastructure like bottle refilling stations, which are all thanks to community support.

We brought this issue to the Student Advisory Board because we continue to need support, especially from influential leaders. We need supporters to gladly and proficiently explain the rationale and the implementation of going bottled-water free to their networks of students, faculty and staff. We need leaders and organizers across campus to implement the bottled-water free practices that can’t be put into policy, such as not bringing bottled water to campus from outside vendors. Hopefully this blog post will rally similar support from HELIX readers on and off campus.

Water is a complex, global issue ranging from the local (where the Las Vegas Sun Times is counting down the number of days until Vegas runs out of water) to the international (where one in nine people lack access to clean drinking water). As a community with access to great drinking water and as an international university, going bottled-water free would be easy to do and make a tremendous impact.

For more information about NU Thinks Outside the Bottle or information about how other, similar universities have successfully gone bottled-water free, contact puraplaya@u.northwestern.edu or info@puraplaya.org

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