Down the Drain

Written by Gabriel Sandler Category: Valley News Issue: September 2015
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PHM 800x800 FPOA so-called “sustainable” water delivery program at Arizona universities is anything but.

One of America’s largest water companies advertises itself as a sustainable choice for college students. In reality, it is dumping gallons of usable water into the streets.

Nestlé Waters, through University and Student Services (USS), offers the Sustainable Water Delivery Service to students at universities in Arizona and nationwide. The service enables students to purchase a set monthly delivery of five-gallon jugs, used with a water cooler. USS recommends starting with three per month for the academic year at $309, which covers 26 jugs and the cooler. Popular at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, the program purports to “eliminate up to 1,000 plastic water bottles per student, per year,” with 717,600 bottles eliminated from UA in 2013.

Water conservation advocates dismiss these claims as “green washing” – an attempt to make something seem more eco-conscious than it is. Students are told they can place their unopened, space-hogging jugs in the hallway, to be removed at the next delivery. What students are not told, however, is that the water gets poured out before the jug even makes it onto the truck.

Multiple customer service agents confirmed Nestlé requires delivery personnel to empty water from returned, unopened containers despite the jugs’ two-year shelf life. Nestlé’s policy is not disclosed on the USS website. Although the FDA allows redistribution of unopened products, Nestlé does not.

Journalism and mass communication major Samantha Stull, who purchased a delivery plan both her freshman and sophomore years at ASU, says she was not told about the policy. “I think ASU should not use Nestlé’s services unless they change their policy,” Stull says. “It is extremely wasteful and ASU is making a university-wide effort to be more sustainable. I am disgusted with [Nestlé] for being so wasteful with water when they call themselves a sustainable service.”

PHM0915PFVN01bWhile the company cites risk of potential contamination as justification, they have no special emptying procedures. The water goes directly into the streets or down the nearest drain. This suggests either a loss of clean water or the unregulated disposal of contaminated water.

Over email, Jane Lazgin, director of corporate communications at Nestlé Waters, discussed Nestlé’s in-house restrictions. “Nestlé has extremely high quality and safety requirements; our policy requires us to dispose of water that has been returned,” Lazgin wrote. She elaborated that Nestlé requires all its water come from “the controlled environment of [the] bottling facility. We do not re-use or re-filter water that has already been bottled.”

 Nestlé would not provide numbers regarding the volume of water sold through the service, but Lazgin called the disposed water “a small fraction of [Nestlé’s] overall water deliveries.”

Between 29 bottling facilities, “a small fraction” could still represent huge volumes of water. One deliveryman estimates that at ASU Downtown’s residence hall alone, he emptied 200 water jugs totaling 1,000 gallons over a single academic year. That accounts for only one facility at a school serving more than 80,000 students. The Sustainable Water Delivery Service distributes directly to students at five universities plus 34 private student-centered properties. The service covers 15 states and Washington, D.C., with many of the states enduring varying intensities of drought throughout the year (see sidebar). Although made aware of Nestlé’s water return policy, USS would not provide information regarding their contacts at ASU or what office approves their vending.

With the ecology of the delivery service in question, the cost-benefit becomes arguably less appealing. The American Water Works Association assesses the cost of a gallon of tap water at $0.004. In 2013, the International Bottled Water Association put the wholesale price per gallon of domestic non-sparkling bottled water at $1.21. With USS’s recommended one-year plan, the cost per gallon of water comes out to $2.38, including the cooling unit – almost 600 times more expensive than tap water.

For students who use the service, the convenience, purity and taste of bottled water may justify the price. But where sustainability is concerned, they may not be buying the promised peace of mind.