Ban the Bottle

Should we be able to cause major environmental damage just because it is convenient? Individuals purchasing bottled water seem to think so. In addition to harming our world, water bottles can cause risks to human health, are a waste of money, and are a drain on water and energy sources. Colleges and universities all over the country are recognizing this and as of 2012, more than 90 schools either banned or restricted the sale of plastic water bottles on campus. To continue sustainability efforts, Duke University should take similar action, banning these bottles and encouraging the use of reusable water bottles and existing water fountains and hydration stations.


Despite attempts to encourage recycling, 38 billion water bottles, or 80% of bottles purchased, end up in landfills each and every year. This wouldn’t be so horrifying if it weren’t for the fact that waste from these products never really goes away. The bottles that we get rid of, end up poisoning us. Because most water bottles are made of petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate (also known as PET), they break down through photodegradation into smaller and smaller pieces instead of biodegrading. This does not frequently happen in landfills since bottles are not likely to be exposed to the sun. However, ten percent of plastic (3.8 billion water bottles annually) ends up in the ocean as a result of trash being deposited in waterways by humans, wind, and heavy rains. Once exposed to sunlight, breakdown of these plastics results in toxic chemicals, including BPA and PS oligomer. These toxins are ingested by ocean animals, which can be ingested by humans and cause serious health risks.


In addition to damaging our health and environment, these bottles damage our economy. Would you be willing to pay $1.45 every time you wanted to fill up a water bottle using the faucet in your kitchen? As it turns out, you may be doing that without knowing it. The Natural Resources Defense Council found that 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water. Tap water itself costs only about 0.9 cents per gallon, meaning that when we buy bottled water, we are paying 560 times what that amount of water is worth. As a country experiencing hard economic times, does it make sense for us to be paying this much for a resource that we can get from a faucet for free? Americans spent $11.8 billion on water bottles in 2012 alone. This is $11.8 billion that we are able to put right back in our pockets by making a simple behavioral change. Duke University should play a part in helping us make better economic decisions by having students and faculty take advantage of water fountains and water bottle refilling stations that have already been installed all over campus.


Lastly, the production of water bottles is a huge waste of oil and water.  Despite the fact that water bottle companies claim to be a “healthy and eco-friendly choice”, the production of bottled water uses 17 million barrels of oil each year, which is enough to fill a million cars for a year and takes three liters of water just to bottle one liter.  When taking into account production and transportation of these bottles in the United States, the Environmental Research Letters journal estimated that 32 to 54 million barrels of oil are used annually, which represents almost a third of our entire country’s energy consumption. This is energy that does not have to be used if we just turn on our tap. As Duke University moves towards becoming carbon neutral, banning water bottles on campus will be an important step.

Our university needs to recognize and communicate the implications of selling water bottles on campus. If banning water bottles seems too extreme, the administration should, at a minimum, post and distribute information telling consumers of the impacts of their choices. Misinformation or lack of information is not an excuse at one of the best universities in the country. However, I think that the best option is simply to ban them. We already have the infrastructure available for individuals to quickly adjust to this change. Free water bottles are distributed regularly and there is no lack of places to fill them. Duke needs to step up, ban the bottle, and end consumer irresponsibility.




    Although the Duke Marine Lab has banned water bottles for a few years now, I don’t see this policy being successful on main campus. Usually in these sorts of reforms you worry only about hesitation from administrators and such, but I expect a sizable portion of the Duke undergrad population would be less than supportive as well.

    What are some of the ideas for restricting sales, instead of an outright ban? Perhaps removing the bottles from vending machines while still allowing them at the campus eateries would be a more viable goal.


    Although I agree that plastic water bottles are unnecessary and cause significant harm on our environment, I think that if Duke were to ban plastic water bottles, they would have to make significant changes around campus. Although there are drinking fountains scattered around most buildings, I think they would need to be much more accessible and clearly designated. For example, I often times buy a water bottle when i’m going into the library because getting up in the middle of my work and searching the floor for a drinking fountain can be a pain. If more drinking fountains were installed, and maintained, I think that Duke could begin the process of easing out of plastic water bottle sales.


    I agree with the two previous comments. I would expect neither the student body nor the administration to be on board with this change. And as the previous comment states, I think that there are other, positive, changes that could be made on campus that would be beneficial to both the environment and the student body. I think making the information about the harmful nature of plastic bottles more readily accessible to the human body as a whole could be extremely beneficial. This could include planned talks, signs etc. I also think that incentives to use reusable water bottles could also be highly effective in reducing the use of water bottles on campus. Duke can even do more to encourage recycling and make clearer what numbers can and cannot be recycled.

  4. Caroline Schechinger

    Hi Hannah,
    I think you make some really good points about the exorbitant price of a water bottle compared to just drinking tap water, the effects of plastic ingestion and chemical leach on marine animals, etc. However, I disagree with your proposition to ban water bottles on Duke’s campus. I’ll admit that part of this may be grounded in my own practice of stocking water bottle packs in my room. (Confessions of an environmental science student…) Regardless, like others have commented before me, there’s just not enough water fountains to supply students’ needs. Think about large events like LDOC or a 5K fundraiser that need to distribute water in mass quantities easily and efficiently. I think you would agree with me that the water fountain infrastructure around campus simply cannot accommodate this.

    I think a better option would be to make recycling more convenient for students. Rather than have one recycling disposal area in a dorm’s common room, why not put a large recycling dispenser in each hall? I realize that by using plastic water bottles a lot, I am less environmentally friendly than if I used reusable bottles, but by recycling all of my plastic bottles I feel (or at least I’d like to hope) that I am still being environmentally conscious. It’s also easy to target plastic water bottles as the culprit, but the larger problem is plastic in general. (So should we ban all plastic takeout containers, plastic bags, etc.?) Ever since its invention, plastic has been filling our landfills and killing marine life. I think sustainability lies in finding an equally cheap, biodegradable substitute, which of course is easier said than done.


    As a student who has not bought a water bottle on campus in over 2 years, I think that a shift towards a plastic water bottle ban would be implementable. I have never had an issue locating places to refill my Nalgene on campus. That being said, it’s unreasonable to assume that the rest of the student body will be as receptive to such a lifestyle change that a ban would impose.

    However, I agree with previous commenters in that there are some steps that we can take on campus to help decrease plastic water bottle usage. For example, perhaps water bottle sales are limited to certain locations on campus, such as the lobby shop or some place in the BC. If water bottles are less accessible then people may be less likely to go out of their way to buy them. If Duke accompanied this change with signage about plastic water bottle consumption implications, and handed out free refillable water bottles at the beginning of each semester, year, month, etc, we could see real, implementable change. Although this would be incremental, it would be a big step in helping the student body become more aware of the environmental consequences to their everyday actions.


    I completely agree with Hannah on this issue. The fact that Duke University claims that it will achieve carbon neutrality by 2024 and has yet to ban plastic bottles is foolish. I think that we have to view a ban on plastic water bottles as a lifestyle change throughout the student body, and not as an outrageous ploy by environmentalists to modify other student’s behavior. However, before such ban could be put in place I firmly believe that the drinking water infrastructure at Duke must undergo serious renovations. Currently, few dormitories and academic buildings have been retrofitted with refilling stations at every water fountain location. It would not be fair to implement a plastic water bottle ban if the University has not done its part to make drinking water highly accessible. I also believe that students who are not familiar with the subject matter must be reassured that the water that is available at the refilling stations is clean, if not cleaner than bottled water brands currently sold on campus.

    To implement such a campaign I think one must model the phase out of Styrofoam take out containers on campus and even the “Ban the Bag” campaign that recently took place in Portland, Oregon. The city of Portland made the decision to ban the use of plastic bags in supermarkets, requiring that suitable alternatives must be provided. Having lived in Portland last summer, I can say the campaign was incredibly effective in two major ways. First, paper bags became the immediate alternative to plastic. These bags are not only less harmful to the environment but also easily reusable. Second, it made the purchase of more substantial grocery bags often made from recycled plastics more attractive and logical. Although initially met with resistance from supermarkets and consumers the “Ban the Bag” has proven to be incredibly effective. Unfortunately it sometimes takes what is perceived as drastic policy change in order to implement that change. I believe that if Duke pledged to improve access to drinking water and refilling stations across campus they could effectively phase out plastic water bottles in due time.


    I find it really surprising that 90 universities around the country have banned plastic water bottles but Duke has not, especially given its desire to go carbon neutral and the sustainability efforts around campus. I agree with previous comments that there would have to be some infrastructural improvements, but I don’t think it would be anything too impractical. If the city of San Francisco can ban plastic water bottles, I’m sure Duke’s small community could manage it as well.

  8. Max Orenstein

    Hannah, Im really happy you wrote about this.
    As a non-environmental major, I felt somewhat out of place when I first walked into class, and it only took me a class or so to realize that bringing one or two plastic water bottles to every class was probably not the best way to make a good first impressions. I found myself hiding my water bottles inside my backpack and drinking quickly or at the water fountain so no one would catch me.
    I have always tried to use the copious amounts of free water bottles distributed each year, but inevitably miss place them or forget them. Furthermore, I dont feel too guilty about it in my standard engineering classes, some of which we have marveled at their engineering accomplishments. And alas, I am concerned about the quality of water in Durham and have chosen plastic bottles over filters in the interest of my own health.
    To me, plastic bottles are easy and convenient.

    As an institution, Duke, or any University for that matter, has the power make the rules and the students must follow them. In high school, I was forced to wear jacket and tie everyday and my classmates and me complained about it until the day we left, but we always understood why. With regards to plastic bottles, this power can serve the greater good. Banning plastic bottles would undoubtably cause student offenders to throw their arms in the air and rant about it with other perpetrators, at least for a while. But in the back of their minds, everyone would understand why the change was made. After some time, It would become more convenient for everyone to adjust to carrying around water bottles and the revolt against the Man would subside.

    Im surprised Duke has not already banned them, given their commitment to carbon neutrality. I think it is myopic to think that the administration would not make the necessary steps to update the infrastructure to make it easy for us to obtain water. At the same time I think exceptions, or other provisions, need to be made for special events such as LDOC and the 5K fundraiser.

    Revolution often times begins on the college campus. Duke has the power and means to influence the behavior of its students and beyond. Why it is still most convenient for me to drink out of a plastic bottle as I write this comment is still unclear to me.

  9. John Bowman

    Hannah, I completely agree with you. I think that fact that the bottled water is such a strong industry is both incredibly disappointing from an environmental and an impressive display of how successful marketing efforts of companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi have been.

    Honestly, I think banning water bottles is the only way to limit their use on Duke’s campus. By and large, Duke students just don’t understand the impact that water bottles have on the environment or just don’t care. No amount incentives or educational initiatives will change that. Moreover, even if reusable water bottles are made more readily available, plastic water bottles will always be more convenient, especially when you can pay for them with a swipe of your Duke card.

    It’s especially important for a school like Duke to take the lead on this issue. Banning water bottles at Duke would be most meaningful if doing so would encourage peer institutions to do so as well.


    I think you’re right that it is important for a school like Duke to do something about this. I think it’s good that duke has banned styrophoam packsging for takeout boxes. Also some duke eateries earn recognition during Duke’s Green Dining awards for offering discounts for customers that bring their own coffee mugs. Also the artist Chris Jordan came to speak to my class about plastic in the ocean ( in Charlotte Clark’s env 245) and how it affects the ecology of albatross.

  11. Rui Wang

    I am very impressed by the supportive comments below on banning the plastic water bottles. Although I do use my own water bottle most of the time, I often felt unable to argue or even raise this question to my roommate. Besides, I do have a confession to make that there are times that I feel that I would like to get a taste of lemonade or green tea and purchase one from the vending machines. Constantly I feel that while using reusable water bottles is definitely worth promoting, it is really a liberty of personal choice. As one of the comments that mentioned that “Duke has the power to make the rules and students must follow them.” I am hesitating to find proper justification about strict banning of all plastic water bottles, let alone the potential outcry and opposing sentiments to the rule among student community.

    Instead, I think Duke should really take efforts to become a better choice architect. As many has mentioned, the hydration stations (or now called water filling stations) should really be more popular on campus. Not only in gyms, lecture halls or the Bryan center, but also in dorms and living spaces. Almost all students living in around the main quad have been complaining how hard it is to locate a water fountain in the building. Besides, Duke should also tries to promote using of water bottles but restricting the alternatives, such as starting from reduce the availability of plastic bottled water, then other drinks. I believe putting this nudges that encourage the students to actively choose reusable water bottles would have a much higher acceptance in the Duke community.


    This is an interesting proposition. While I don’t necessarily agree with an outright ban, I do think that “re-filling stations” should be made more prevalent on campus and other incentives put in place for people to consume less bottled water.

    Two thoughts:

    First, how effective is the recycling of water bottles? (I ask this in response to a previous comment that offered increased recycling as an easy fix.) I recall reading that, because the plastic is already thin and soft, recycled water bottles must be converted into more amorphous products like fleece. If this is indeed the case, it seems that increased recycling is hardly an adequate solution.

    Second, what are feasible and appropriate policy actions at a national scale? Would interventionist policies be desirable?

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