On Sunday evening, the Pitzer College Student Senate voted unanimously to ban bottled water on its campus. In its official statement, the Senate affirmed:
“The Pitzer College Student Senate recommends that the College take the necessary steps to discontinue the purchase, sale and distribution of bottled water on campus and at College sanctioned events, including vending machines and campus cafes and eateries… the Pitzer College Student Senate recommends that the College provides reusable water vessels for all members of the Pitzer community, including staff and faculty members.”
The document does not articulate what Pitzer College’s current bottled water consumption is, nor does it identify the impact of such a ban. While the Senate presented a myriad of reasons for its rejection of bottled water, its primary concern involved the environmental impacts of bottled water. “Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, yet the recycled rate for plastic in the United States is only 23%, which means 38 billion water bottles – more than $1 billion worth of plastic – are wasted each year,” the Pitzer Senate argued. “Public tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires multiple daily tests for bacteria and releases this information to the public, while the Food and Drug Administration, who regulate bottled water, only requires weekly testing and does not share its findings with the general public (National Resource Defense Council).”
Pitzer College reasoned that a college-wide ban on water bottles would reduce the American footprint on the environment and increase the quality of the consumed water. However, when the University of Vermont enacted a similar ban in 2013, students still bought water bottles online and had them shipped to campus, creating an even greater environmental footprint than before the ban. Furthermore, student consumption of unhealthy sugary drinks increased by 25% as students sought alternatives to bottled water. When debating this policy, the Pitzer College Senate did not identify the economic and environmental costs of such a ban.
Many other schools, including the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and Brown University have banned bottled water for similar concerns. When Harvard was debating banning bottled water, one student wrote in the Harvard Crimson a defense of keeping plastic water bottles legal, arguing that a better solution would be to raise the prices on plastic water bottles, creating an incentive to use eco-friendly materials without coercion. The argument proceeds, that “the University could then use some of the tax revenues to supplement employee pay to ensure that the tax does not result in lower salaries for student-employees.” In this context, Pitzer’s ban on water bottles could hurt the dining hall workers’ salaries or increase student fees due to lost economic revenue.
Over this past Academic Year, the Pitzer Senate has repeatedly curtailed liberties within the college in the name of social justice. Last fall, the Senate voted to forbid students from forming a yacht club because it deemed the word “yacht” to be “offensive” and “classist.” Shortly thereafter, the Senate refused funding to a proposed Pitzer College branch of the DreamCatchers Foundation, a charity that works with terminally ill hospice patients. The Senate reasoned that though the founders and current owners of the DreamCatchers Foundation were Native Americans themselves, the organization was deemed “cultural appropriation.” Pitzer College’s self-proclaimed mission, “environmental sustainability [and] social responsibility” has now manifested itself through this ban.
The ban on bottled water comes to Pitzer even though bottled water is safer than tap water in the event of a natural disaster. As the Claremont Colleges are located near the San Andreas fault, it is wise to take the threat of earthquakes seriously. Moreover, the ban on bottled water is not accompanied by bans on other eco-unfriendly materials, such as aluminum soda cans, or non-fair trade chocolate and coffee. The Pitzer Senate articulated that “producing single use disposable bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually” without identifying the impact of alternatives. The Pitzer Senate mandated that Pitzer College “install more hydration stations” and “provide reusable water bottles for all members of the Pitzer Community, including staff and faculty”, but did not articulate the funding source for such endeavors.
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