Real impact is empowering people to reject plastic bottles

Associate Professor Beth Choate and Assistant Professor Brittany Davis – from the Environmental Science & Sustainability department at Allegheny College – along with 20 second-year majors, have led a project to reduce bottled water usage on their campus.

The problem

Humankind’s continuous reliance on bottled water over the past 30 years has become a major global issue, as discarded plastic blights on our environment. Reducing the amount of bottled water consumed is imperative, but to do so, there needs to be an understanding of why people use bottled water and how to change ingrained cultures.

The research

Professors and students at a US college have carried out a study which resists the ‘logical’ step of banning bottled water on campus, seeking instead to alter people’s behaviour.

The idea emerged in 2014 after Beth had spoken to the college’s Sustainability Coordinator, Kelly Boulton, who expressed frustration at the number of disposable water bottles being used on campus. Students suggested a ban on the sale of bottles, but Kelly had identified that most bottles were being brought in from outside. Furthermore, when other institutions had banned bottled water it simply led to students opting for alternative bottled beverages, often with high-sugar levels. It was clear that only changes of approach and attitude could cultivate real impact.

Sustainability is already very visible at Allegheny College, from solar panels on the top of the science building to the porous pavers in parking lots, along with the October Energy Challenge initiative and a commitment to achieve climate neutrality by the year 2020. These existing commitments to the environment gave the team confidence that an alternative way of consuming water would be embraced by the student body.

A pivotal element of the research involved students carrying out a survey among their peers to establish who uses bottled water, why they drink it and where they are purchasing it. The data that emerged proved revealing – while many students do drink bottled water in their first year, as they progress through college they tend to drink less, and by the fourth-year students no longer rely solely on bottled water.

Many more, however, chose to drink bottled water for convenience, a better taste and through the perception that it is safer and healthier. The survey also showed that a large percentage of students didn’t even know that tap water was safe to drink.

The impact

Having completed the research, the team have gradually unrolled its response. Each student now receives a high-quality, reusable metal water bottle and, contained within the bottle is reassuring information about water testing results from the local municipal water system. Convenient bottle refill stations have also been installed throughout campus. These stations automatically dispense filtered water and are much easier, not to mention cooler (figuratively and literally), than standard drinking fountains.

The school initially had only two water stations, but the continuing impact of the research means they are situated throughout the Allegheny College site, with more to come. In 2018, a follow-up survey was conducted to understand the extent to which these changes have made a difference. Preliminary results indicate that there has been a significant shift in behaviour and that bottled water use among all students has reduced.