Berkeleyan

filling bottle at hydration stationRSF director Mike Weinberger fills his eco-friendly stainless-steel bottle at one of two new "hydration stations" at his facility. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Quench your thirst the Berkeley way

As 'hydration stations' are installed on campus, units team up to offer alternatives to plastic water bottles

| 19 March 2009

In the early 1990s, bottled water was the province of the elite. No more: U.S. sales reached $15 billion in 2007, according to Fast Company magazine. Those ubiquitous plastic bottles cost the environment as well as the pocketbook: 1.5 million tons of plastic go into producing the beverage containers annually with fewer than 20 percent of them making it to recycling centers.

Locally, in 2005-06, some 850,000 plastic water bottles were sold (and presumably discarded) on campus. The Recreational Sports Facility, Cal Dining, University Health Services (UHS), and the Office of Environment, Health, and Safety (EH&S) are now helping the campus kick its own bottled-water habit.

Last week, Rec Sports celebrated the installation of two "hydration stations" water-dispensing devices where people can fill up bottles twice as fast as a standard drinking fountain allows. The stations, located outside Rec Sports' weight room and martial-arts area, are touch-free: an electric sensor triggers the water's release.

Rec Sports has partnered with Cal Dining and UHS to encourage the campus community to switch to reusable water bottles, forgoing the soft-plastic variety that so reliably add to the nation's growing disposal problems.

"We're always looking for ways to embrace sustainability in how we do business," says Mike Weinberger, director of Rec Sports.

The hydration stations are part of Rec Sports' Play Green initiative to diminish its environmental impact, says Weinberger. Rec Sports has installed low-flow showerheads in its locker rooms; changed light fixtures throughout the RSF to high- efficiency, high-output fluorescent lamps; added transformers that turn off automatically if areas are not in use for 20 minutes; and used state-of-the-art synthetic turf, made in part from recycled tires, at the new Underhill Field.

Plastic-free pledge

Cal Dining, which received organic certification in 2006 and has a track record of sustainable practices, began selling stainless-steel "Klean Kanteen" water bottles to students in fall 2007 to encourage them to drink tap water. Last spring, Rec Sports, Cal Dining, and UHS collaborated on a wider push that included students, faculty, and staff, launching the campuswide "I ♥ Tap Water" campaign. The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) anted up $5,000 for the campaign's publicity. (TGIF makes grants totaling $250,000 annually that support sustainability initiatives on the Berkeley campus.)

Hydration stationPeg Skorpinski photo

Since the inception of the "I ♥ Tap Water" campaign, 813 students, faculty, and staff (as of this month) have taken the pledge to make tap water their beverage of choice, says Trish Ratto, manager of UHS's Health*Matters, the campus's wellness program for faculty and staff. Ratto adds that 80 percent of those people are using refillable water bottles, quenching their thirst from sources across campus from water fountains to departmental kitchen sinks.

"We're trying to address health and sustainability by reducing the consumption of caloric beverages and encouraging people to drink more water," says Ratto. Tap water, she says, is a good choice, not least because it's free and healthy.

In fact, one goal of the campaign is to combat myths about the risks of drinking tap water. In fall 2007, a survey in a Berkeley class of 170 public-health students found that many believed tap water is less healthy and clean than commercial bottled water. The hydration stations at Rec Sports use water supplied by the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD), taking the added step of filtering it for chlorine taste and odor.

Tim Pine, an environmental-protection specialist with EH&S, observes that EBMUD, which provides water to the Berkeley campus, gets its water from Sierra snowmelt, which yields "very soft water with low mineral content." Even before EBMUD filters mineral and organic matter from its water, says Pine, it's "already really good."

The real issue, says Pine, is the hidden environmental costs of bottled water which include extracting raw material to make the bottles, bottling and shipping the water, and the impact of the containers' disposal. Those factors, says Pine, "make tap water the clear choice in my mind."

To take the "I ♥ Tap Water" pledge, visit www.uhs.berkeley.edu/tapwater/pledge.shtml.