This section discusses best practices for phasing out bottled water and transitioning to alternative methods of dispensing water such as water filters, bottle-less water coolers, and fountains. We also discuss reusable water bottles.
Best practices include forming a team dedicated to the task, establishing baseline data, setting goals, adopting a policy, improving current behaviors, specifying bottled water alternatives, and measuring and reporting progress (see Figure 4).
1. Form a Team
Form a Drinking Water Team of staff, students, and faculty representatives responsible for identifying and implementing bottled water alternatives (see Table 1). Smaller institutions may only need one person to spearhead such an effort. The Team’s tasks should include:
- Developing a rationale for phasing out bottled water (e.g., cost savings, waste reduction, student pressure, etc.);
- Identifying the availability and feasibility of alternatives;
- Proposing a timeline to phase-out bottled water and switch to alternatives;
- Presenting an implementation plan to key decision makers; and
- Reporting on progress.
Table 1: Drinking Water Team Members & Responsibilities
Executives & Senior Management
- Empower and support the program (see Adopt a Policy, below)
- Oversee budget
- Quantify financial and environmental impacts of current bottled water consumption (also see Measure Baseline Inventory and Impact)
- Estimate environmental and cost benefits of alternatives
Environmental Health & Safety
- Test water quality at building entry points and points-of-use and report results (see Box 1, below)
- Determine whether water treatment is needed
- If treatment is necessary, work with procurement team to identify the best products to meet water quality needs
Facilities Management & Staff
- Replace water filters
- Maintain, clean, and sanitize fountains and coolers
Events & Conferences, Catering & Dining, Retail & Other University Stores
- Replace bottled water with alternatives
- Educate staff on reasons for the switch and availability and location of alternatives
- Calculate the savings from eliminating complimentary bottled water at university sponsored events and administrative use and compare to bottled water sales in vending machines, campus stores, cafeterias, etc (see Cost, Quality, and Supply).
Students & Faculty
- Lead educational campaign on campus
- Create and distribute signage and other educational materials
- Organize “Tap Water Challenge” events (For a comprehensive guide on how to organize a Tap Water Challenge event and other student resources, see Related Documents )
- Issue press releases about the initiative in various media outlets
2. Measure Baseline Inventory and Impact
Gather the data needed to establish the costs, waste generation and other environmental impacts of current bottled water consumption as a basis for tracking progress.
Box 1: Determine Water Quality
Prior to phasing out bottled water, find out if your water has contaminants. Obtain water quality information from a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) from the local water utility company, and/or by testing your on-site water.
While water testing can be costly, many local health departments offer free or low-cost water testing kits. Call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) to find what is offered by local health departments.
A free water testing kit is available from Everpure.
Or use this EPA list to find a state-certified testing laboratory:
Companies such as National Testing Labs (800-458-3330) can test for dozens of contaminants by mail. Consumer Reports found that low-cost test kits such as the Watersafe All-In-One Drinking Water Test Kit ($18) provide “quick, accurate results for chlorine, lead, nitrate, nitrite, two pesticides, pH, and total hardness” (CR, 2007a), though “results for bacteria were less reliable and required waiting 24 hours.”
Water quality should be monitored on a regular basis and additional testing may be necessary for groups with higher health risks such as the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and consumers with weakened immune systems (GG, 2007). These populations can be at risk even when contaminant levels are at or below legal standards.
Include these data points in the inventory:
- Bottled Water Consumption
- Volume, type, and cost of bottled water currently purchased.
- Location where bottled water is being purchased (e.g., dining areas and cafeterias, catering services, vending machines, administrative offices, and on-campus retail stores). See Divergent systems for bottled water below.
- Entity purchasing the bottled water and the reasons for their purchase.
- Contractual requirements of beverage exclusivity contract, if applicable.
- Revenue earned from bottled water sales in dining areas, on-campus retail stores, vending machines, etc.
- Amount of waste generated from plastic water bottles and the associated cost of recycling and disposal. For single-stream recycling venues, calculations can be based on total waste, but results may be less accurate.
- Electricity used and subsequent cost by any vending machines that exclusively sell bottled water, if applicable.
- Consumption of Other Bottled Beverages
- Volume of other bottled beverages (e.g., soda and juice) purchased and amount of revenue earned through sales of those beverages.
- Electricity used and subsequent cost by vending machines that sell mixed beverages.
- Tap Water
- Tap water consumption by building, facility or department.
- Results of tap water quality tests at building entry points, faucets, fountains, or water lines (see Box 1).
- Number of water fountains currently in place, amount of water consumed from each, and condition and functionality.
- Number of bottle-less water coolers in use and the amount of water consumed from each.
- Identify Needs of Final Users
- List who drinks building tap water.
- Note any at-risk populations such as the young, elderly, pregnant, and immuno-suppressed that may be sensitive to certain water contaminants.
- Calculate quantities of water needed by these populations.
- Divergent systems for bottled water
- Recognize that the different types of delivery for bottled water affect consumption habits and have their own unique implications. For example, the logistics of supplying bottled water in vending machines may be different than the logistics of providing bottled water to Dining Services or Athletics. Other factors such as access to recycling bins in the vicinity of bottled water sales are also important to note.
- Though systems will vary by campus the list below gives some general systems to look at:
- Vending machines
- Dining Services “to-go” meals (both retail dining and the growing trend of grab-n-go dining from dining halls)
- Athletics (both use by athletes and retail at athletic events)
- Retailers on campus (campus bookstores, etc.)
- Bottled water use in offices
While compiling financial costs, be mindful of the possibility that new costs can be offset by savings in other areas. For example, eliminating the administrative use of bottled water from one office could pay for the installation of bottle-less coolers or upgraded fountains in another.
3. Set Goals
Set goals and time frames for eliminating bottled water consumption, saving money, and reducing environmental impacts. Aim to reduce or eliminate bottled water procurement within 6-12 months. Use our Calculator to project cost savings and environmental benefits such as waste reduction and greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and establish these projections as goals.
The degree and pace of reduction or elimination depends partly on whether users embrace or reject the change. If resistance is expected, allow for a phase-out period while efforts are made to educate stakeholders. Be sure to research bottled water alternatives before implementing a ban so that replacements are ready to be substituted as soon as a ban is enacted. Analyze and factor in the staff, time, and money it will take to ensure compliance with bottled water bans, especially in high-resistance situations.
Large colleges and universities might also find it useful to start with a pilot program that begins with a single operation or part of campus. If this is the case, the Drinking Water Team should focus its work on an agreed upon starting point, such as catering, dining services (as a whole or starting with a single cafeteria) or athletics, and create a timeline to expand the bottled water reduction or elimination more broadly.
4. Adopt a Policy
Adopt an official procurement policy outlining the general goals related to providing drinking water and establishing accountability. The policy can be a brief Executive Order from the university administration and/or can be incorporated into the institutional sustainability plan, procurement policies, and event and conference policies.
A drinking water policy should:
- State a rationale for reducing or eliminating bottled water;
- Establish a team for implementation;
- Identify preferred alternatives;
- Authorize funding;
- Address potential exceptions;
- Set a timeline for implementation; and
- Mandate tracking and reporting procedures.
Refer to the Policies section of this Guide for sample policies.
5. Improve Practices
Changing certain practices related to drinking water can help reduce wasted water and ease transition to bottled water alternatives. For example:
- Maintain, renovate and/or upgrade existing drinking water dispensing infrastructure. When practical and economical, retrofit fountains, filters, and bottle-less coolers. Locate fountains and coolers strategically, such as in high traffic areas and next to beverage vending machines. Train facilities staff to properly maintain existing fountains, filters and bottle-less coolers. Also, help to divert funds that would have been spent on bottled water for these upgrades, if necessary, to maintain the water infrastructure.
- Replace bottled water at conferences and events. Request that event venues provide adequate tap water and service containers, such as fountains, plumbed-in dispensers, mobile insulated water coolers (like those seen at sporting events), pitchers, glasses, or other reusable containers; and prohibit event caterers from selling or distributing bottled water. In event registration materials, encourage participants to bring reusable containers. Provide reusable bottles or glasses at events, either as a complimentary registration gift or for sale. If reusable containers cannot be supplied, use 100 percent compostable or recyclable cups and establish appropriate receptacles and collection methods. Note locations of watering stations during conferences, other university events and in venue maps.
Large events such as commencement ceremonies and concerts present unique challenges. Participants need to stay hydrated and universities have a vested interest in the safety of their students. At large events where individuals might consume alcohol, this safety concern is heightened. Even in these instances, bottled water should be a last resort. A paramount concern should be to provide participants with easy access to clean water. This can be done with large, portable, coolers set up at water stations that are placed at scattered locations at the event venue. Many outdoor concerts already include basic amenities such as portable toilets and food services and these would also be ideal locations for water stations.
- Switch to bottle-less coolers. Bottle-less coolers filter, cool and/or heat water on demand, directly from taps. These plumbed-in coolers are cost competitive with bottled water coolers and most come with multi-year service contracts.
- Switch to ENERGY STAR rated coolers. If unable to switch to bottle-less coolers, switch remaining bottled water coolers to ENERGY STAR rated coolers. (Note: currently no bottle-less water coolers are registered as ENERGY STAR compliant.)
- Eliminate disposable beverage containers. Do not place disposable cups near coolers. Instead, where feasible, supply glasses or other reusable containers.
- Plan for emergency situations. Emergency preparedness requires advance planning. Make planning for tap water delivery a priority. Bulk purchase of bottled water should be a last resort.
- Communicate changes. Place signs near vending machines, kitchens, cafeterias, administrative offices, dormitories, etc., and send email updates explaining the bottled water phase-out and the alternatives that are being made available.
- Engage students as much as possible. In addition to having student representatives on the Drinking Water Team, allow students to have an active role in shaping the bottled water phase-out policy. Facilitate town-hall style meetings to encourage student input and address concerns. Also, establish a bottled water page within the university website to allow students to read about the changes, calculate their environmental impact with RPN’s bottled water Calculator, read more about the environmental and social costs of bottled water and submit suggestions and comments.
Special Considerations for Colleges and Universities
Beverage Exclusivity Contracts: Beverage exclusivity contracts (sometimes referred to as “pouring contracts”) are agreements between colleges and universities and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, etc., which give these companies exclusive rights to sell and distribute their products at agreed upon venues at a school (Polaris, n.d.). Common contractual provisions include:
- Guaranteed exclusive market free of competitors
- Long term agreement (5, 10 years, etc.)
- Financial incentives such as scholarships or other contributions to the university
- Preferred pricing
- Minimum sales requirements
- Possible compensation if the university breaks its contract
Universities and colleges should work with contracted beverage providers to amend or cancel existing contracts that include bottled water (either single serve or bulk) for offices, events/conferences, on-campus retail or convenience stores, dining services, vending services, and cooler services. Contract language varies widely between schools, but many will allow purchasers to end the sale of bottled water so long as the school does not sell a different brand of bottled water.
For an example of common contractual provisions in a beverage exclusivity contract, see Addendum I.
6. Specify Bottled Water Alternatives
If necessary, identify, purchase and implement alternative methods of water dispensing such as filters, fountains, bottle-less coolers, and alternative methods of maintaining supply, such as reusable containers.
It is worth noting that water, available in single serve plastic pouches, has entered the marketplace as a potential alternative to water served in PET bottles. These pouches are claimed to use less energy to transport because they are lighter and also produce less waste (PFFC, 2005). Pouched water is also available for emergency preparations. However, water available in plastic pouches still poses many of the same problems as conventional bottled water, including the increased energy compared to tap water needed to transport the water and containers (although pouches might be lighter than PET bottles, the water itself is still heavy to transport) and manufacture the containers. Pouched water should therefore be considered a less effective alternative compared to filters, fountains, bottle-less coolers, and reusable containers.
Filters:Filters are commonly part of coolers, some fountains, and some reusable bottles but are not always necessary. Based on tap water testing (see Box 1, above), determine whether filters will be needed and, if so, which filters will best remove unwanted materials from the water (e.g., lead, chlorine, chloramine). Note that some water tests may not indicate whether chlorine or chloramine are in the water, but this information can be obtained from the local water utility.
Specify filters that meet NSF/ANSI standards and are certified to remove the contaminant(s) of concern (NRDC, 2005). See the Standards section of this Guide for more information on NSF/ANSI and Addenda VII, VIII & IX for detailed charts on water contaminants and filtration methods. Be aware that, in addition to contaminants, it could be beneficial to use filters designed to eliminate tastes and odors, if necessary. When possible, purchase filters from a manufacturer with a filter cartridge take-back or recycling program.
Maintain filters according to manufacturer instructions in order to ensure safe, continuous water filtration and to prevent old filters from releasing harmful materials into the water (NRDC, 2005). Maintenance may include regular filter cartridge or membrane changes or professional cleaning. For units without filter-life monitors, mark the filter-change dates on a calendar. The Centers for Disease Control recommend “wearing gloves and washing hands after changing the filter cartridge – a task to be avoided by people with weakened immune systems” (McEvoy, 2004). Some filter models offer service and maintenance contracts to keep the unit running at peak performance.
Fountains: Water fountains will play a principal role in the elimination of bottled water at a college or university because they can easily supply many people with drinking water. Also, since water fountains already exist in many buildings, they are an easy alternative. Even if newer buildings were built without water fountains, they can be easily installed and yield substantial cost savings compared to bottled water.
There are four basic types of drinking water fountains:
- Box-shaped floor models that stand alone or are connected to a wall
- Models with a pedestal base (also known as ‘bubblers’)
- Wall-mounted units that do not touch the floor, allowing wheelchair access
- Models built into and flush with the wall
Key features to seek when purchasing drinking fountains include:
|This water fountain at the University of Winnipeg has
been upgraded to include a spigot for reusable bottles.
- Easy Installation: Choose fountains that provide quick access to the inside of the unit. This makes installation and maintenance faster and less of a hassle. The height of the water stream should also be easy to adjust and should ideally be adjusted at the time of installation.
- Durability: Look for materials made to last such as painted metal or engineered plastic (Sorensen, 2004). Stainless steel is also a strong, easily maintained and aesthetically pleasing option.
- Easy to Clean: Purchase fountains with “smooth surfaces and a minimal number of parts” (Sorensen, 2004).
- Safe Design: Blunt corners will help prevent injury.
- Indoor vs. Outdoor: Make sure the fountain purchased is designed for the environment in which it will be used. Most fountain models are for indoor use, but units do exist for outdoor and extreme temperature conditions.
- Manufacturer Reputation: Look for companies with a good reputation for providing superior customer service and products. Ask fountain companies to provide customer references.
- Free Services: Some companies offer free shipping, installation, or package deals. These can greatly reduce total costs.
- Spigots: These enable users to fill up large reusable bottles with fountain water. Existing fountains can be retrofitted to accommodate these bottles and such requirements should be written into building standards and specifications for new fountains. Spigots are also useful in that people can refill their reusable bottles without the common worry that the faucet has been touched by others’ mouths.
Coolers: Consider these factors when evaluating bottle-less water coolers:
- How much money is available for bottle-less water coolers. Determine how much money can be invested in installing bottle-less coolers and how much is budgeted for monthly or annual fees for maintenance, repairs, etc. Filtered coolers typically can be either rented or purchased. Find out if there is money that is being spent on bottled water that could be reallocated to install and maintain bottle-less coolers.
- The number of people needed to be served by coolers. Calculate the total number of people who will need to access coolers, and the number of people each individual cooler must serve. Different size coolers may be better suited for different departments/areas based on their cold water production capabilities. Be sure to include staff as well as visitors.
- Desired features for coolers. Major health-focused features can include a filter or UV disinfection light. Minor, more aesthetic or convenience-oriented features can include an LED readout screen; a monitor that tells when the dispenser’s catch tray is full; an alert that tells when the UV light has burned out; or special leak protection hardware. Some coolers also have built-in meters that measure water use, a useful tool that can help an institution monitor how much their coolers are being used.
- Quality of the institution’s municipal water supply. This will determine whether the cooler needs to have a filter, and if so, the appropriate type of filter. See Box 1, above, for information about determining water quality.
- Degree of required maintenance. Bottle-less coolers need routine water storage tank cleaning and sanitizing to prevent bio-film buildup in the tank. Coolers can be manually sanitized regularly or use a self-cleaning UV light technology. Determine the degree of maintenance that the Facilities department is willing or able to commit. For more information on bottle-less cooler maintenance, see Cost, Quality and Supply.
Reusable Bottles: Purchase bottles designed for reuse that can be filled with tap water. For maximum effectiveness, combine the use of reusable bottles with alternative methods of water dispensing such as filters, fountains, and bottle-less coolers. Consider selling and promoting reusable bottles in campus stores and special events. If possible, provide new students a complimentary reusable bottle at orientation and encourage them to use it properly and often. This tactic was employed at Smith College, which began providing incoming students with reusable bottles as part of a long term strategy to reduce bottled water consumption, and subsequently noticed a decline in the use of bottled water on campus. By distributing reusable water bottles, Smith College eliminated at least 130,000 bottles of water served to students at a savings of approximately $30,000 (Guzowski, 2009).
Buyers should consider the safety, recycled content and recyclability of bottle materials (such as metal, plastic, glass or ceramic), including materials used as inner linings. Benefits and drawbacks of reusable bottle options are discussed in the Cost, Quality, and Supply
section of this Guide. It is important to note that PET bottles (#1 plastic) -- the ones used for packaging most bottled water -- are meant for one time use, not for reuse, so they should not be considered as a viable long-term reusable bottle option.
7. Measure & Report Progress
Conduct regular reviews to determine effectiveness and maintain commitment to bottled water alternatives. Compare baseline data with current practices based on the timeline set out in the policy. Use RPN’s Bottled Water Calculator to measure cost savings and environmental benefits achieved. Identify:
- Consumption of bottled water reduced;
- Money saved;
- Water conserved;
- Waste prevented; and
- Emissions reduced;
Identify whether there were obstacles to success and whether goals need to be reoriented. Publish and distribute periodic progress reports.
Corporate Accountability International, Student Organizing Kit, n.d.
Corporate Accountability International, Tap Water Challenge Organizing Kit, n.d.
Polaris Institute, Building a Bottled Water Free Campus Toolkit, n.d.