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Seattle University

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Sustainable Justice

Written by Mike Thee
February 27, 2012

In September 2010, Seattle University stopped selling bottled water on campus. The move, which followed a three-year campaign led by students in Professor Gary Chamberlain's Religion and Ecology class, placed the university in a very small group of bottle-free campuses nationwide.

SU's decision would have been significant enough strictly from an ecological standpoint. But the university took it a step further when Sustainability Manager Karen Price conceived an idea whereby the SU Bookstore would sell stainless steel bottles and donate the proceeds to a clean water project in Haiti being led by SU's Engineers Without Borders chapter. Eighteen months later, the arrangement can only be described as an unqualified success.

The Bookstore sold its first shipment of 1,000 bottles by the end of last year. A second shipment of 1,000 sold out earlier this month, even more quickly than the first. "Obviously the project struck a chord on campus as the momentum of sales keeps going up," said Bookstore Manager Bob Spencer. "The Bookstore will continue to support the project however large it becomes!" (The next shipment of water bottles arrives at the Bookstore on March 1.)

And here's what really matters: the 2,000 bottles sold thus far translates to a total donation of $4,400, which "provides up to 80,000 Haitians with safe water for a year," said Phil Thompson chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and advisor for SU's Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter. Thompson said last year's proceeds helped EWB create five water treatment systems, and this year's donations "will go toward a fund that we are developing with Rotary International and Seattle International Foundation to provide 10 clinics with safe water this year."

But wait, there's more. The university is sourcing the bottles from the non-profit Corporate Accountability International (CAI). This assures that $1 on every bottle sold supports the organization's work to remove plastic water bottles from other schools.

Water, water everywhere...

There’s plenty of places on campus for faculty, staff and students to get their water fix. Bon Appétit has been providing the SU community with free, tasty water. This year they are dispensing free strawberry and mint or cucumber and lemon infused water at the Cherry St. Market salad bar—this in addition to the free water at the soda fountain. The Bottom Line, Sidebar and Bistro provide free water in jugs and compostable paper cups. The Byte staff will give you water if you ask for it. Facilities Services provides the SU community with free, filtered water and bottle fillers at more than 30 campus fountains.

CAI's executive director and 1987 SU graduate Kelle Louaillier said: "I'm very proud of my alma mater for phasing out bottled water on campus and leveraging that commitment to support the university's humanitarian efforts in Haiti. Corporations like Nestlé are attempting to convince people that the only place to get clean, safe drinking water is from a plastic bottle sold at hundreds of times the cost of tap water, but we all know that's not true. By partnering with Corporate Accountability International through purchasing reusable water bottles, Seattle University has shed light on misleading marketing by the bottled water industry and underscored the importance of strong public water systems." 

Seattle University is more than a model for other schools contemplating a bottle-free future. Other institutions increasingly are turning to SU for guidance on how to make the transition. So far, Price has assisted 14 schools undergoing the process, including sister Jesuit schools Boston College, Loyola University Chicago and Seattle Prep. "Seattle University's leadership on the issue has set the stage for many universities to follow suit," said Louaillier.