February 22, 2011

Water for thought

SG's bottled water resolution oversimplifies environmental concerns

They’ve done it again. In their unceasing effort to garner popular support, Student Government (SG) has espoused a resolution on reducing bottled water sales that aims for more glamour and glitz than actually getting things done.

In a few swift keystrokes, they have reduced an intricate problem into an arbitrary dichotomy—sales vs. reduced sales—and positioned themselves exactly where they expect our “educated” sympathies to lie.

That’s not to say these sympathies are misplaced: Emotionally, at least, the resolution seems downright admirable. Just pause for a second to imagine that rosy near future where students don’t think twice about all of those spurious reports of pernicious compounds lurking in tap water, where lines for the water fountain rival those for the bathroom during between classes, where carrying around a Nalgene has become not only a habit for most students but perhaps even a fashion trend.

So props to the SG, right? It’s about time they, the real voice of this university, stand up for all that is noble and good in this world, that they become a glowing beacon of hope in this dark, increasingly polluted wasteland.

If you answered yes, I would like to thank you for taking the bait.

If, on the other hand, you are as interested as I am in actually producing a sustainable solution to the bottled water question, let’s work through where SG went wrong and what they should have done instead.

In casting the issue as more one-dimensional than any question of this scale and scope could ever possibly be, the SG has simultaneously stifled possible ideas for reducing the impact of bottled water without directly reducing sales and created discord where there didn’t necessarily have to be any.

1) If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. Let’s face it: The fact that selling bottled water on campus is still prevalent despite other (free) alternatives means there’s a demand for it. A significant one. Naturally, with a little prodding or perhaps a few “educational” campaigns some, but certainly not all, of these students will investigate alternatives. So what about the rest of them? Who ARE those fiends in the first place?! Horrid, insensitive monsters bumbling through their daily lives with no concern for the larger impact of their actions?

Hardly. For the most part, these are just people who happen to like having clean, cool water available at their convenience. Many of them would, if given the choice, actually like to live more sustainably, but they are so off-put by accusations of bad, wasteful people that they have no desire to do so.

Though to be fair, I should redirect some of my criticism here: This problem is general, plaguing many environmental projects and movements. Instead of lending a helping hand to those who would, in theory, like to improve their habits, these movements are all too prone to declaring themselves the good guys and everyone else the enemy, and then lambasting (or, more subtly, “reeducating”) them to the point that they are completely unreceptive to the possibility of changing their habits.

At the end of the day, we don’t have to be environmental saints to make a real difference. Despite being fully aware of the negative health effects of fried foods, I happen to really enjoy eating falafel, and I intend on continuing to do so not because I particularly want to succumb to cardiac arrest anytime soon, but rather because I feel that I am able to balance my eating habits to have a positive overall impact on my health.

If we want to have a positive influence on the environment as a society, we need to stop demonizing (and mandating in certain cases) and instead create a system where better habits are easier to pursue.

2) Reducing bottled water sales is the only way. It turns out that bottled water can be sold in a way that is just as environmentally sustainable and economically feasible as not selling it at all. In fact, this is being done as we speak. Consider Germany’s legally supported Pfand system: If I buy water in Germany, I am required to pay a nominal additional fee (let’s say 0.25 euros), which I will receive back in exchange for returning the bottles to the store, where they will be cleaned, refilled, and resold to other customers.

Et voilà, customers get their beloved bottled water without having to waste the plastic or glass that went into producing it. A system like this could, if properly implemented, work wonders on our campus; charge $4 for a (reusable) bottle of water and return $3.50 if the student brings the bottle back at some point. How is this different from just having students lug around their own bottles?

The bottle is now available precisely when I want it, so I don’t have to think ahead about when I will be thirsty on a given day. When I carry it back it will be empty, i.e. lighter; and if I really want to, I can just keep the bottle and refill it on my own.

Of course, I can’t say definitively that this is the right solution for the U of C, but in any case it’s a viable idea. In phrasing their resolution, the SG should have focused less on the emotionally-charged “right” answer, assuming a clear divide between right and wrong, and more on encouraging a multiplicity of ideas about how to move forward realistically.

Tyler Lutz is a second-year in the College.