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Return to tap water on U of T campus a collaborative effort

Staff instrumental in creating change

President David Naylor (left), Anne Macdonald of ancillary services (right) and students from Public Water Initiative brandish their refillable water bottles. (photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Beginning this fall, bottled water won’t be sold at most venues on the St. George campus, and the other two campuses are phasing out sales over the next three years. The move away from bottled water -- an environmental and social justice issue -- has been a joint effort between staff and students with Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services for the university, leading the charge.

“I’d heard about the [student group] Public Water Initiative doing work on campus and there was increasing interest in this issue from colleagues at other universities, so I thought I’d engage the students and see if we could work together,” said Macdonald.

The students were eager to see bottled water eradicated from U of T as soon as possible, but Macdonald knew it wasn’t as easy as snapping her fingers. She needed to discuss the idea with staff on the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses, too, and talk with the many campus vendors.

“I suggested that we first work on raising awareness” she said. “I knew vendors would be happier to see bottled water disappear if it was a result of consumer preference.”

Ancillary Services formed a small working group with the students, food services staff and interested colleagues from University College.  This group worked with the students on a joint marketing campaign promoting alternatives to bottled water, which also included working together on several campus events, like Orientation Week’s Clubs Day.  The group also worked with the students to design and produce reusable water bottles which were sold at student residences, campus outlets and student events. The student event proceeds were returned to the Public Water Initiative students to provide a bit of funding for their initiatives.

Educating the university community paid off. Campus sales of bottled water dwindled and Macdonald felt the time was right to phase out bottled water sales across campus.

Since she had been signalling to vendors for a couple of years that change was coming, no one was taken by surprise. Macdonald put a plan together, outlining the steps necessary to phase out bottled water sales and met with stakeholders to ensure that the timeline was workable.  She also suggested that Bottled Water Free Day in March 2011 be used as an opportunity to gauge general community support, and worked with staff at all three campuses to implement a one-day ban and distribute a short survey.  The result of that survey was overwhelming support for eliminating the use of bottled water, not only by students but by staff and faculty as well.

By polling property managers, Macdonald found that a number of buildings needed new or additional water fountains. She also learned that the manager of U of T trade services had sourced a fountain that had a bottle filler and push bar and had incorporated it into building specifications. Anyone updating their fountains or building a new campus building would be required to include this model.

Talks with the sustainability office brought the staff there on board to help promote the return to tap water and incorporate it into some of the educational work they were already doing.

Finally, she wrote a report on the plan, which included stakeholder feedback and plans from the three campuses, and provided it to Cathy Riggall, vice-president of business affairs. Riggall presented it to the administration and obtained their enthusiastic approval.

Now, a few months later, the phasing out process has begun and a return to using tap water is underway.

“It’s hard to implement something like this across the entire university, because there are lots of moving parts: lots of people, departments and stakeholders involved,” said Macdonald. “I’m pleased that it’s actually happening.”

There are still bumps along the way. Bottled water won’t magically disappear overnight. At some large events, particularly sporting events and other outdoor events, bottled water is more practical than alternatives.  And Macdonald is also hoping for voluntary compliance from departments and divisions when they provide water for their meetings and general office use.

New water filling stations will also have to be added gradually -- due to cost --  although, Macdonald notes there are taps aplenty on campus.

Hurdles notwithstanding, enthusiasm for the ban on bottled water is high, and the resulting plan was well worth the effort, she says.

“This demonstrates that the university can do something as an entity, even if it’s a grassroots initiative.”

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