A day is coming where there will be no plastic water bottles on campus. This coming year food services departments, campus cafes, libraries, and other buildings will be phasing out the use and sale of plastic water bottles. The ban is a tri-campus initiative, starting this year on the St. George campus and moving forward to Mississauga and Scarborough campuses over the next three.
Leading the campaign against bottled water is a student organization called Public Water Initiative (PWI). For them, this ban is the first step towards a stronger public water system.
While acknowledging environmental issues, the group is focused on the social justice. “Water is a public resource and basic human right,” said Ando Petro, member of PWI. “So when you are making it okay for people to pay for water like you do with bottled water, then you are commodifying this public resource and basic human right and that makes it okay to say that only those who can afford it can have access to water.”
University administration is working alongside PWI and other departments to implement new public water infrastructure, such as increasing the amount of water fountains. “The university has adopted a new standard for water fountains,” said Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services.
Proposed double-sided fountains, branded ‘Easy H2O,’ are to include a regular drinking fountain and water bottle filling station. These new fountains will soon be found in Sydney Smith and Convocation Halls, followed by Robarts Library and athletic centres.
The move comes after Macdonald’s department did a survey that found 85 per cent of the university community in favour of a ban. While U of T administration supports the new public water initiative, the required infrastructure is being paid for and decided by individual departments.
“Because the university is a very decentralized place it is department-by-department,” said Macdonald. “For a cafeteria and food service area, that would be the food service department. For an academic building, it would be that building or college.”
Macdonald hopes that people can “work through the potential inconvenience,” and believes beyond this first step, “we need to work on an education campaign,” concerning the stigmatization of tap water.
“In Toronto we have been lucky to have such great public water,” said Petro. “The municipal drinking water in Toronto is actually checked every three or four hours and bottled water is only checked maybe every few years. It doesn’t have to comply to the Canadian drinking water guidelines because it is considered a food resource.”
While there have been public water contaminations, there has been infected bottled water as well. “The sad truth is that companies can afford to hide these facts and are not required to advertise them like public water contaminations are,” said Petro.
“Toronto has a very good track record in respect to tap water cleanliness and testing levels,” said Macdonald. “For our environment, we should make sure that message is communicated.”
“We want to emphasize that this isn’t meant to limit people’s freedom of choice,” said Leanne Rasmussen, another member of PWI. “It’s meant to be a deeper attitude change. It’s meant to be an educational perspective on trying to get people to recognize the implications of things like this in everyday life.”
But members of PWI realize more is needed to make sure more than just sugary drinks can be found on campus.
“Although this is a phase-out of bottled water, we need more public water infrastructure like water fountains, and that the existing fountains are maintained,” said Petro. The disappearing water bottles and appearance of new water fountains are only the first step in a battle for social justice.”