In the United States prior to the 1970’s water was mainly consumed through the tap, but when trust in the government began to shift, corporations saw an opportunity and thus began the rapid sales of bottled water. The exponential increase in sales of bottled water was mainly due to corporations’ aggressive advertising campaigns misrepresenting the quality of bottled water as far superior to tap water and hinting that tap water may be harmful to public health or that there were special minerals in bottled water (Poland Spring, 2011). Consequently, consumption and confidence in the public water system began to wane. The sale of plastic water bottles has increased over the past 30 years partly because of the apparent increased convenience of a disposable, readily available product and partly because of the negative media attention from bottle water companies on tap water. “Bottled water has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember that it hasn’t always been here” (Bottled and Sold, Gleick, page 6). The general convenience of buying a bottle of water rather than bringing a reusable one from home was an attractive concept to a society that was starting to choose the easy way out. However, cost and convenience are not the only issues with disposable water bottles. Bottled water has harmful effects on both the environment and our community. By educating the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) community on these issues, we hope to gain its support and phase-out the sale of disposable water bottles on our campus.
We worked with Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a non-profit organization aimed at “protecting human rights, public health and the environment from corporate greed and abuse around the world” (www.stopcorporateabuse.org) .Our project followed the goals of the global Think Outside the Bottle campaign: promote public tap water by educating the community about its environmental and economic benefits, and expose the misleading marketing of the bottled water industry. Our goal was to establish this campaign on campus and by gaining the support of the WPI community, establish a plan to phase out the use of disposable plastic water bottles on campus.
After compiling all of the background knowledge needed to have a good understanding of the general positive and negative aspects of both bottled water and tap water, our approach for obtaining the project goal was developed. The goal of this project is to develop a campaign which would phase out the use of disposable bottled water on the WPI campus. We developed a set of objectives each aimed at a different aspect of the campaign in order to accomplish our goal.
- Educating ourselves on the current state of disposable water bottles on campus and the thoughts of the community on the elimination of bottled water.
- Educating the WPI community by creating awareness and relaying facts about tap water versus bottled water.
- Developing events for the community that displayed and helped show support for the “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign.
- Developing and researching the effects and outcomes of implementing a reduction or elimination of disposable water bottles on WPI campus.
These set of objectives provided a set of categories in order to separate the campaign into sections making it more effective and efficient to implement on campus. With these objectives in mind we compiled a set of methods which would achieve the desired objectives.
- In order to educate ourselves on the opinions and ideas of the WPI community we established focus groups, interviews and distributed surveys. This allowed us to gain both quantitative data and qualitative data on the ideas of the community.
- To heighten the knowledge of the community on the issues of bottled water we tested local brands to gain information that can hit a personal level with the community and then spread awareness through local media sources and visual presentations.
- In order to promote the campaign we worked closely with Corporate Accountability International and the tools they provided us, such a providing us with a guide for developing a blind taste test to help convince the public that there is no real difference between the taste of tap water and bottled water.
- Finally after having the backing of the community we developed interviews and presentations with higher up management figures in order to help develop the idea and gain some ground on phasing out the sale of bottled water. This was mainly achieved through investigating proper alternatives in order to combat the negative effects of phasing out the bottle.
Findings and Discussion
Our research and analysis established that the majority of people within the community felt that it would be feasible to use mainly tap water as a means of obtaining drinking water. Through the analysis of our survey it was determined that 59% of survey takers responded that they would be willing to pledge to use tap water 100% of the time. 52% of survey takers were either satisfied or very satisfied with the tap water at their residence, while 86% of survey takers lived off campus. This leads to the conclusion that people are generally satisfied with Worcester’s public tap water.
The majority of the focus group participants liked the idea of obtaining more bottle refill stations similar to the ones in the Recreation Center. One participant even stated they take the effort and go out of their way of use the stations in that location. Focus group participants thought that the filters in the stations helped debunk the idea that tap water is unclean. Participants also talked about there being a difference in taste, which based on the taste test was largely proven false.
Most WPI community members could not differentiate a difference between Worcester tap water and bottled water when attempting the Tap Water Challenge. A common theme seen during Tap Water Challenges were people thinking they knew exactly which water sample was which, however when given the answers only 4.2% of the total 97 participants correctly guessed all water sources and a majority of participants were shocked to find that none of their guesses were correct. In addition to the Tap Water Challenge, 67 petition signatures were obtained within the short span of about twelve hours pledging to use tap water 100% of the time.
Reasons for Not Supporting the Campaign
A portion of the WPI community felt that bottled water is needed in case of a state of emergency. When holding meetings with WPI executives, such as Philip Clay, the constant question that arose was that tap water may not be readily available during emergency cases and bottled water may be the only alternative. Some of the participants and passersby also felt that in those situations the only means of getting safe water would be through bottled water. It no longer is a question of cost or cleanliness but a necessary alternative during emergency scenarios.
A portion of the student body did not use the current water fountains available on campus and did not find them very appealing. One question on the survey was: “is there anything you particularly dislike about tap water at your residence?” This question was partially intended to solicit responses along the lines of “it’s dirty” or “it’s not as clean as bottled water”. Some other responses discussed an aversion to the chlorine taste in the water, which is merely a matter of preference, though a taste of chlorine would seem to indicate the water’s cleanliness. Also during the focus group a number of participants felt that the residence halls had similar issues of pressure, temperature and taste issues.
A portion of the WPI community felt that they simply did not support the ban because it was a “ban” which implied a choice was being taken away. Many members of WPI executives including those of the President’s Task Force felt that by placing a ban or eliminating bottled water, that a individuals rights was being taken. Feedback on the survey also showed that some faculty supported the campaign, but did not like the implication that they are restricting the choices of the people. They felt people of the community should be informed about the harms of bottled water and based on that make a educational decision to use it or not, but a educational decision nonetheless.
Based on our school demographic and viewpoint, we developed new ideas. Through various meetings and interviews we gained new ideas that helped further the “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign. Jill Appel provided us with marketing aspects and ideas which were helpful in moving our campaign forward. Particularly the idea of Tap Buddy, a free downloadable app which displays the nearest tap water source on campus caught our interest.
New ideas developed during the campaign to gain a marketing edge. Additional ideas were to give out free “WPI is green” themed refillable water bottles on special awareness days. In our discussion we joked about new ideas and one which seemed very feasible and fun, was the idea of waterbucks. They would be paper money with water drops in the center.
During the focus groups and from participants during the Tap Water Challenge, a new idea for testing samples located on WPI campus was developed. We tested both samples straight from the water fountains on campus and from bottled water brands used. The samples can back completely clean leading to the conclusion that there is no difference between bottled water and tap water. Everything is the same besides the price.
Through our presentation to the President’s Task Force and our interview with Philip Clay and Joe Kraskouskas we established that in addition to the educational aspect, the business aspect needed to be incorporated. The financial aspect was determined through talks with Genevieve Moss-Hawkins and Mary Whitney in order to determine statistical comparisons. The economic feasibility and alternatives to the cost of phasing out bottled water was discussed in interviews with the catering company Joe Kraskouskas and The President’s Task Force compiled of influential executives of the college.
After conducting focus groups, distributing a survey, holding Tap Water Challenges and countless interviews, our group developed the following recommendations for the use of furthering the “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign on the WPI campus.
WPI Implementing the first step of phasing out the disposable water bottle
We recommend that the renovation be made to existing water fountains to fountains with filters. We have researched popular water fountain brands with water bottle fillers, like Globaltap, and we think that those models would be ideal to use for students to refill their reusable water bottles. We also recommend that there be research done on the of refrigeration water fountain units versus the units that are just simply hooked up to the tap due to a higher electricity cost to WPI. The renovations of the water fountains will allow for students to be more apt to want to use them then to use old water fountains that look unappealing.
We recommend that Chartwells have pitchers at catered events instead of bottled water. We recommend that with this simple change, it could mean dramatic differences in the amount of disposable plastic water bottles the campus consumes. By having water in pitchers the default option, and bottles available by request, a significant portion of water bottle consumption on campus could be eliminated without forcing any significant changes to the events hosted on campus, as bottles would still be available when appropriate.
Future IQP groups and the student Green team to implement on campus
We recommend that establishing more events (such as the Tap Water Challenges, petitions, and the Facebook page) and public activities, it will enable the furthering of the campaign and allow the progress already made to grow. Through more events like the taste test and a film showing, we will be able to educate the public on the issue and help decrease the sales of disposable water bottles. By working closely with Chartwells, the campus catering company, we can determine the decrease in sales based on the increased awareness on campus. Also our research has shown that when we host events that are creative and new, the WPI community is more responsive and approving of our final goal to phase out disposable water bottles on campus.
We recommend continuing all communication and work with both the President’s Task Force and the Executive of Chartwells. Through our experience, the more communication that occurs the more support we gain. We recommend frequently holding meetings with progress updates and ideas of the campaign for a good understanding to be established and miscommunications to be resolved.