Gary Chamberlain was traveling with students on one of Campus Ministry’s immersion trips to Belize in the late 1990s when he says he was struck by how much bottled water they were drinking. “The Belize City water was fine to drink,” he remembers, adding “There was no recycling or any way to deal with all those plastic bottles.”
So when Chamberlain, now emeritus professor of theology and religious studies, returned to Seattle, he began studying and writing about the issue. “Bottled water takes attention from the need to keep our public water facilities clean and clear,” he says. “It is expensive and reflects the ability of some to provide for themselves while others have to rely on public tap water.”
Chamberlain also started sharing what he was learning about bottled water with some of his classes. His students took note, and a few of them became actively involved in making SU a bottle-free campus.
Last month, the university became the first higher education institution in the state of Washington to stop selling plastic bottled water campus-wide. The decision was the culmination of a three-year, student-led campaign influenced largely by Chamberlain’s crusade against what he calls “the bottled water phenomenon.”
In 2008, one of Chamberlain’s students, Nick McCarvel, raised the issue with his classmates in the Ignatian Honorary Leadership Society, and Gretchenrae Callanta enthusiastically joined him in reaching out to the university. They met with Ron Smith, vice president for finance and business affairs, who was receptive to their proposal, and advised them to help pave the way by educating the campus community on why bottled water should be eliminated.
Over the next two years, the students’ effort picked up steam. After McCarvel and Callanta graduated, other student leaders like took up the cause and worked persistently to keep the issue at the forefront.
One of these students, Spencer Black, co-founded the student club Natural Leaders for Social Justice. “The bottled water issue specifically caught my attention because there are so many social justice issues involved,” says Black, who goes on to cite concerns over the privatization and distribution of water, the natural resources required to manufacture plastic bottles, the litter that often accompanies purchased bottles of water and the false or misleading ways in which the products are often advertised.
The campaign received a big boost last year when Black secured the support of Jesse David, then-president of the Associated Students of Seattle University. The association passed a resolution to endorse the students’ proposal for going bottle-free.
Significant support for the effort also came from a number of SU staff and departments. Sustainability Manager Karen Price took the lead in lining up critical commitments from her colleagues across campus. SU’s food service provider, Bon Appétit, was amenable to the change. So was the Athletics Department, which agreed to stop selling bottled water at their concession stands. (A total of 3,700 bottles of water were sold on campus during last academic year.)
In June, the Academic Assembly approved the students’ proposal and the Executive Team followed suit. Smith handled the negotiations with Pepsi, which had been selling the bottled water on campus as part of its contract with the university.
Price, meanwhile, was proactive in preparing the university for life as a bottle-free campus. There are 31 water fountains across campus with bottle fillers. She also worked with Bookstore Manager Bob Spencer to make it possible for students, faculty and staff to purchase a high-quality reusable stainless steel water bottle at a discounted price of $10. (The 27-ounce bottle ordinarily retails for $15.)
But there’s an even greater social justice bang for the buck in these transactions. At Price’s encouragement, the Bookstore is purchasing the reusable bottles from Think Outside the Bottle, a program working to protect public water systems. Not only that—Spencer has agreed to donate the roughly $2 in profits from each sale to SU’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter.
Phil Thompson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and head of SU’s EWB chapter says the group intends to use the funding to install water treatment systems at medical clinics in Haiti. They need about $2,000 for each clinic, “So if we can get each new student to purchase a water bottle, we will be able to help up to two clinics per year,” he says. “I’m thrilled that Karen has been able to help us start this program!”
Of the donation component of the water bottle sales, Price says, “No other university is doing this. This really speaks to our mission.”
And so the effort has come full circle. A cause that was inspired by the water bottle-drinking ways of SU students has been advanced and brought to a successful conclusion by the students themselves. “I want to applaud the students who have really pushed this issue over the past three years,” says Chamberlain.
Black, for his part, is gratified by the result that he was so instrumental in bringing about: “This is a beautiful and empowering message that Seattle University is now a part of. Our generation is making a statement and starting a new era of environmental economics. This decision will educate and inspire students for years to come. It may only be one small step, but it is one that could have a lot of good repercussions. Our school develops leaders for a just and humane world—and this is just one example."