Contract with Coca Cola forces UI students to find new solution for sustainable water practices

BY DORA GROTE | APRIL 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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A failed attempt by University of Iowa sustainability advocates to ban disposable water bottles on campus has led them to look for alternatives.


Students discovered last fall the UI couldn't ban selling or distributing the plastic bottles on campus because of a contract between the university and Coca-Cola. The contract, established in 2007, goes for three five-year terms.

"With the contract, we needed to find a solution that was viable but yet competitive and as simple as banning disposable bottled water — something innovative that would spark student interest but was worthwhile to them too," said Kelsey Zlevor, UI Student Government sustainability initiative advocate.

Zlevor collaborated with students in Take Back the Tap — a student organization devoted to sustainable water solutions — to install hydration stations on campus.

Hydration stations are added to current water fountains by including a platform on which bottles can be filled standing upright, avoiding spills. A sensor tracks how many plastic bottles have been saved.

The UI has 14 stations located in residence halls, the IMU, Trowbridge Hall, and the Field House. UI Student Government funded the station in the IMU, which cost $934 plus labor. Construction of more stations is underway in Macbride Hall and the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center.

"Reusable containers help reduce plastic waste," said Liz Christiansen, UI director of sustainability. "While many people recycle single-use plastic water bottles, too many still don't. The plastic waste ends up in the landfill, or worse, as litter."

However, Susan Stribling, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Refreshments, said eliminating water bottles from college campuses is not the solution to solving sustainability. She said the company is working with colleges, including the UI, to help promote recycling.

"Eliminating plastic water bottles eliminates personal choice," she said. "We believe people should choose how they consume water, and you can't have that choice when you take away one of the options."

Franco Savoni, the senior product manager for drinking water solutions at Elkay — the station's manufacturer — said the devices are located at approximately 200 colleges and universities in North America. The University of Northern Iowa has 10 — one in each of its residence halls. Other college campuses use a similar product through Brita.

Zlevor said a few concerns have been expressed about the use of filtered water for the hydration stations.

"One of the concerns is that we're promoting a stigma that tap water is dirty because of the stations provide filtered water," Zlevor said. "Which is certainly not true at all."

The transition from plastic bottled water can be a slow process, she said.

"It's a progression," Zlevor said. "We're weaning people off bottled water for all the reasons they use it — convenience and perceived cleanliness — and making reusable water bottles just as easy to fill."

Zlevor said the ideal building would contain one hydration station and several gooseneck extensions — curved pipes attached to fountains — to encourage students to use tap water and avoid disposable plastic bottles.

Though the UI has a contract with Coca-Cola, University of Pennsylvania law Professor Jody Kraus said modifications could be made to revise UI obligations.

"I'm not entirely sure because I haven't seen the contract, and I can only speculate, but there might be numerous ways to negotiate the contract," Kraus said. "Parties can see what it would cost to modify contracts or buy out the contract, but it's all contract-specific, and it just depends."

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