Responsible Purchasing Network

Bottled Water University Edition: Overview

This Guide serves as an update to RPN’s previous publication, “Think Outside the Bottle: Bottled Water Alternatives.”  In order to facilitate the efforts of educational institutions throughout the world that are seeking to reduce or eliminate purchases of bottled water, RPN has created an updated version of its bottled water alternatives guide, tailored specifically for universities and colleges.  Most of the information in this Guide is applicable to any institutional purchaser, but a special effort was made to address the unique concerns of colleges and universities.

Below we provide an overview of each section of the Guide: Social & Environmental Issues; Best Practices; Cost, Quality & Supply; Specifications; Standards; Policies; Products; Calculator; Handy Facts; Case Studies; Definitions; and Credits & Endnotes.

Social & Environmental Issues

Americans bought a total of 8.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2008.  According to one estimate, manufacturing bottled water in the United States required the energy equivalent of 32-54 million barrels of oil.  Nearly 50 billion new polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles were produced in 2005 from virgin rather than recycled materials, producing additional greenhouse gases and solid waste.  In 2004, only 14.5 percent of non-carbonated beverage bottles made from PET in the United States were recycled.  For each gallon of water that is bottled, an additional two gallons of water are used in purification and production.  Furthermore, the entire process of manufacturing plastic bottles and transporting them to stores requires nearly 2,000 times the energy of supplying tap water.  Many of these impacts can be avoided by encouraging students to consume water from municipal tap sources through filters, fountains and bottle-less coolers. 

Best Practices

Though bottled water has become widespread in recent years, colleges and universities can shift to tap water with relative ease if they use a combination of careful planning, and the best practices outlined in this Guide, such as the following:

  • Involve all stakeholders in the process;
  • Measure bottled water impacts and estimate cost and environmental savings from switching to alternatives;
  • Upgrade potable water infrastructure such as water fountains;
  • Cancel or amend bottled water contracts and identify, purchase, and implement alternatives such as filters, fountains, bottle-less coolers, and reusable containers; and
  • After implementation, review the program’s effectiveness, report the results and recognize the efforts of the people involved in the effort.

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Cost, Quality, & Supply

Colleges and universities can potentially achieve substantial savings by eliminating the purchase of bottled water.  On average, the cost to treat, filter, and deliver water to residents in the United States is 0.2 cents per gallon – roughly 750-2,700 times cheaper than bottled water on a per gallon basis.  For the most part, this water is also very safe for consumption.  Over 90 percent of U.S. municipal water systems regularly meet or exceed the EPA’s regulatory and monitoring requirements.  However, a wide variety of cost-effective water filters are readily available to remove contaminants when they are present.  Compared to bottled water, water fountains save money, especially when installed in easily accessible, highly visible areas such as main hallways, waiting areas, and cafeterias.  Bottle-less water coolers are another smart option, drawing water from the tap and eliminating the expense of purchasing bulk bottled water.  Reusable drinking water containers have low lifecycle costs and have lower human and environmental impacts than single-serve plastic bottles.

Specifications

This Guide includes a model specification, developed by the Responsible Purchasing Network, and several sample specifications.

Standards

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water because it is considered a food product.  The standards are different and are enforced differently.  It is not uncommon for bottled water to be sold without ever having been tested by the FDA, especially if it is sold within the same state where it was produced.

The leading standards for water treatment units (e.g., filters, treatment systems, chemicals) are the National Sanitation Foundation/American National Standards Institute (NSF/ANSI) standards 42, 44, 53, 55, 58, 60, 61, and 62.

Colleges and universities can use standards from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessing and Reporting System (STARS) program to document and report progress on sustainability initiatives. 

Policies

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water because it is considered a food product.  The standards are different and are enforced differently.  It is not uncommon for bottled water to be sold without ever having been tested by the FDA, especially if it is sold within the same state where it was produced.

The leading standards for water treatment units (e.g., filters, treatment systems, chemicals) are the National Sanitation Foundation/American National Standards Institute (NSF/ANSI) standards 42, 44, 53, 55, 58, 60, 61, and 62.

Colleges and universities can use standards from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessing and Reporting System (STARS) program to document and report progress on sustainability initiatives. 

Products

RPN’s online product database includes over 2,000 water filters certified by NSF/ANSI 42, 44, 53, 55, 58, 60, 61, and 62 to remove various contaminants.

Calculator

The Bottled Water Calculator developed by RPN, compares the cost and environmental impacts of bottled water with tap water.

Handy Facts

The handy facts section provides a referenced set of facts and findings pertaining to bottled water.

Case Studies

Washington University in St. Louis and The University of Winnipeg were the first American and Canadian schools, respectively, to end the purchase of bottled water for both administrative use and in retail operations.  These initiatives are outlined in this section.

Definitions

The definitions section provides a glossary of terms used throughout the Guide.

Credits & Endnotes

The credits & endnotes section lists the people responsible for writing, reviewing, and editing this Guide along with a listing of sources referenced.

Conclusion

Bottled water is environmentally damaging and wasteful and fiscally unnecessary.  Given the wide availability of safe, low-cost tap water, and the wide array of appropriate and cost-competitive filters and other drinking water dispensing equipment, switching to tap water saves consumers money and dramatically reduces environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and waste generation.  A growing number of buyers, both public and private, are thinking outside the bottle and making the switch – providing models by which others can replicate their success.  We hope this Guide will ease your university’s transition to bottled water alternatives while cutting costs and lightening your environmental footprint.




Creative Commons License This work by the Responsible Purchasing Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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