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Staff Ed: UMBC should stop selling plastic water bottles

In the past few years, environmental activists have called attention to the detrimental effects of plastic straws. This widespread campaign has boasted some big successes, with chains such as Starbucks vowing to phase out the use of plastic straws by 2020 and entire cities, including San Francisco, restricting the use of plastic straws to those who request them due to disabilities or medical needs. The Starbucks located in University Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has seemingly reached this goal to date: All iced beverages are now served with a recyclable lid akin to a sippy cup. 

While a similar agenda has not been stated by Dunkin’ Donuts — the new location in The Commons hands out cold beverages with a signature orange straw — we must recalibrate the focus of our environmental advocacy. Even with a meal plan, iced coffee is a luxury that not all students indulge in. Water, however, is a necessity. Given that the entire population of UMBC, including students, staff, faculty and visitors, drinks water on a daily basis, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that our environmental footprint could be reduced if we focus on minimizing waste from water-related single-use plastics?

Currently, bottled water is available for purchase at both the True Grit’s and Commons Outtakes, as well as in vending machines located inside every residence hall and academic building. Meal deals at any food vendor in The Commons offer the choice between a plastic water bottle and a compostable fountain drink cup. All fountain drink machines on campus have a water option, and the compostable vessel does far less damage to the planet than plastic bottles. To encourage the use of cups over bottles, UMBC should eradicate the selling of plastic bottles, or at the very least cut down on the practice, taking into consideration redundancy and necessity.

This is a goal that other schools have committed to, notably The University of Vermont. Their Office of Sustainability website documents the progress of this initiative, which began in 2013. As of now, all dining locations offer free, filtered cold water. UMBC’s own filtered hydration stations are sporadically located throughout campus, but should ultimately replace all fountains. Additionally, water coolers with compostable cups should be installed in academic buildings, allowing students and faculty to fill up personal reusable bottles or bring cold, fresh water to their classrooms in cups if needed. UMBC currently sells Dasani brand water, owned by Coca Cola, which is produced by filtering municipal tap water. There is no reason that this water should be made more available than the free tap water that flows through our fountains, especially if we take the initiative to filter and chill it. 

To accommodate the on-the-go lifestyle of students, UMBC can and should sell reusable water bottles at Outtakes, offer compostable cups by water fountains and update our water infrastructure so that all fountains are replaced with filtered hydration stations, and all existing hydration stations are maintained properly and frequently. Light indicators communicate the filter status, letting us know when it needs changing. These lights should always be green. The UMBC community deserves free access to quality potable water, and the planet deserves the benefits that accompany this intentional decrease in single-use plastics.