To ban, or not to ban, that is the question.

We can’t imagine a university or college that isn’t grappling with the issue of single use plastic water bottles on campus.

During the 2010-2011 school year, here’s what we did to address the sale of bottled water at Red River College.

First we assembled a Water Working Group. This was a diverse group of people who were interested in the issue. The group had representation from Campus Services, the Students’ Association, RRC students and the Sustainability Office. Our purpose was to develop a water plan for the College.

As a group we unanimously decided that issue of bottled water was more involved than the single question “Should Red River College ban the sale of bottled water?”.  Even within our group we discovered that people have different perspectives on the issue. Some were most concerned about water as a human right, others felt most strongly about the environmental impacts of extracting, transporting and disposing the product. One thing quickly became clear – bottled water brings many opinions!

Considering that a ban on the sale of bottle water on campus would impact all students and staff, we wanted to develop a consultation plan that reached a broad sample of students and staff rather than allowing a vocal minority to impact the choices of a majority.

With the help of our Research and Planning Department, we developed an Intercept Water Survey (a face-to-face survey) to gauge student and staff opinions on a variety of dimensions around this topic – how frequently are water bottles recycled, reasons for purchasing bottled water, the quality of drinking fountains, the commodification of water, the importance of the issue to the College community and more.

We assembled a team of 15 intercept interviewers comprised of students and staff and set out throughout the month of March, 2011 to conduct the interviews. The intercept survey was administered to 400 students at the College’s two main campuses – the Notre Dame Campus and the Exchange District Campus (specifically the Roblin Centre). An online survey also ran concurrently to the intercept survey.

See the survey results here.

Thanks to this process we learned that most students are familiar with the issue of bottled water and feel that it’s important. About 75% of students said they would be more inclined to use water fountains if they were retrofitted to bottle fill stations. We also divsovered that there wasn’t a majority support to ban the sale of bottled water.

The water project did more than engage students and staff on this topic… it also yielded tangible results. Because of this work, the College allocated $50,000 to upgrade water fountains throughout the Notre Dame Campus (all fountains at the Roblin Centre were retrofitted with goose neck bottle fillers in 2010).

We sought feedback on preferred locations of water fountains by using sticky dots and used this information to let the Facilities department know which fountains to prioritize.

Throughout the summer of 2012 this money will be used to retrofit 16 water fountains to bottle fill stations at the Notre Dame Campus. These fancy new fountains even have a bottle fill tracker.