Executive Summary

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is a leader among schools in academics, research, and sustainability. Constantly striving to remain ahead of the curve will ensure WPI’s continued leadership. Our Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) team aimed to further WPI’s sustainability efforts, by gathering data on the WPI community’s perceptions of tap and bottled water and reactions towards the phase out of the sale and distribution of disposable bottled water on the WPI campus.


Impacts of Disposable Bottled Water

Disposable bottled water has negative environmental, financial, and social impacts. In 2006, Dr. Peter Gleick, a world renowned expert in water issues, environmental justice, and sustainability, conducted a study of bottled water in the U.S. and found that 44% of all bottled water originated as tap water (Gleick & Cooley, 2009; Arnold & Larsen, 2006). The bottled water system creates additional and unnecessary water demands through raw materials acquisition, manufacturing, distribution, and disposal.

The harmful environmental effects of bottled water are obscured by misleading labeling and advertising that encourage consumers to pay a premium for what is essentially expensive tap water. The prices for bottled water are substantially higher than for tap water, ranging from 240 to 10,000 times more per unit volume (Jaffee & Newman, 2012). In the U.S., the average cost of a gallon of bottled water is $3.00 compared with $.002 per gallon of tap water (EPA, 2009). Bottled water has become commonplace at meetings and events in the government, education, and business sectors, and costs a substantial amount of money. Money spent on purchasing bottled water is money spent irresponsibly since most Americans have easy access to high quality tap water.

Tap Water is More Strictly Regulated than Bottled Water

The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) regulates public drinking water, while the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) regulates the quality of bottled water. To ensure the safety of the public drinking water supply, the EPA has established stringent limits on almost 100 potential contaminants pursuant to the SDWA (SDWA, 2012). States however, may choose to impose even stricter limits. The FDCA is implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (Summary of Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 2013). The SDWA holds tap water to higher standards than the FDCA requires of bottled water. A 2009 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office also shows that states conduct more inspections of their bottled water industries than does the FDA (US GAO, 2009).

If more consumers were aware of the inadequate regulations and lack of testing of bottled water, more consumers might choose to switch from drinking bottled water to drinking tap water. For example, many universities and even the town of Concord, Massachusetts have been able to phase out or even ban the sale of bottled water by educating their respective communities about the quality of tap water. These communities are proof of the success of the national campaign to transition to tap water known as the Think Outside the Bottle campaign. It is time for WPI to join the Campaign to transition to tap.

Think Outside the Bottle at WPI

Our IQP team promoted the Think Outside the Bottle (TOTB) Campaign on the WPI campus. Our goal was to reduce disposable bottled water sales, to spread awareness of the superior quality of tap water, to facilitate the installation of new water bottle filling stations, and to replace nonfunctioning water fountains across the WPI campus. To decrease the demand for bottled water, we educated the WPI community by holding Tap Water Challenges, posting facts about bottled water at every water fountain on campus, maintaining a TOTB Facebook page, and hosting a TOTB concert. Tap Water Challenges are blind taste tests between three tap water sources and three bottled water sources, during which the participant (students, faculty, and staff) tasted each source and tried to match each water sample to its source. This activity put the bottling companies’ claims of superior taste to the test. Our results showed that consumers cannot reliably distinguish the taste of bottled water from the taste of tap water. Also, our Tap Water Challenge results revealed that the WPI community believes some tap water has superior taste compared to bottled water.

After taking the Tap Water Challenge, each participant was asked to sign a pledge committing them to choosing tap water instead of bottled water for the remainder of the 2012-2013 academic year. Over 100 people signed this pledge, which was more than half of the Tap Water Challenge participants.

Water Fountain Assessment and Plan

In addition to educating the WPI community about the undesirable characteristics of bottled water and the benefits of tap water, our IQP team worked to facilitate the installation of new water bottle filling stations, like those in the Sports & Recreation Center, in other areas around campus. We analyzed every water fountain on campus, to which a typical student has access, to determine the current status of the water fountains on campus and develop a reasonable approach to repairing, replacing and upgrading current fountains.

We developed a priority system to determine which fountains should be replaced first and why. Tier 1 includes fountains that should be replaced first because they are in high-traffic areas and are broken or of low quality. Tier 2 includes fountains that are in working order, but are either non-refrigerated or have low pressure. Also included in tier 2 are fountains that are broken, but are in low-traffic areas. Tier 3 includes fountains that are in working order and are not in need of immediate replacement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

For WPI to remain a leader in sustainability, water bottle filling stations must be installed to accommodate the WPI community’s increasing demand for tap water. Through our awareness-raising events we found that the WPI community strongly supports the transition to tap water. This support encouraged us to assess every publicly accessible water fountain on campus. We found that the top priority fountains to update are on the 2nd floor of the Library and the 2nd floor of the Campus Center because they are the most trafficked fountains on WPI’s campus and members of the WPI community complain about the sub-par quality of the water provided by these fountains. Also, there is a demand for outdoor water fountains near the entrance to the athletic field and near the fountain in the center of campus.

As renovations are made on campus, we propose several models that are suitable as replacements for the old, non-refrigerated or broken fountains. The suggested models are manufactured by the Elkay Company. We recommend this company in particular for a number of reasons: 1) Elkay is a reputable company that WPI facilities management has experience working with; 2) the WPI community has expressed great satisfaction with the current Elkay water bottle filling stations in the Sports & Recreation Center; and 3) maintaining consistency with the existing on-campus models will reduce the maintenance learning curve. Because the water bottle filling stations we recommend provide filtered water, the stations will require additional maintenance and money to replace filters.

The future of the Think Outside the Bottle campaign at WPI could benefit from a student organization, such as the Green Team, continuing to promote tap water, educating freshmen about WPI’s sustainable philosophy at an event during New Student Orientation, and maintaining high quality water fountains. Upgrading water fountains to water bottle filling stations is an investment that provides a long-term solution to the increasing demand for tap water and visible sustainability efforts at WPI.