Kicking the Bottle

Concordia Announces Plans to Remove Bottled Water From Vending Machines

  • Graphic Julia Wolfe

Concordia University’s administration announced on April 6 that it would begin the process of phasing out water bottles from vending machines on campus.

“This is step one,” said university spokesperson Chris Mota. “The discussion is going to continue to develop. It doesn’t end here, and even this step will take us up to three years to deal with.”

Phase one is a $100,000 project that involves repairing, replacing and retrofitting existing water fountains on campus and will see the university “do as much as humanly possible” so that, by the end of the next academic year, bottled water can be removed from vending machines. Over a three-year period, 63 water fountains will be replaced and 144 will be upgraded to accommodate reusable drink containers.

The move makes Concordia the first university in Montreal to begin the ban on the bottle.

Putting out the announcement after undergraduate students voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning the sale of bottled water on campus in a referendum question two weeks ago, Mota explained, “it would have been completely inappropriate for the university to say anything [before or during the election].” She said the decision had been reached internally earlier last month.

The bottled water issue gained momentum on campus last November after the administration clandestinely renewed a five-year exclusivity contract with PepsiCo. that saw students protest outside the MB building, eventually staging a sit-in.

At that time, acting university VP Services Roger Côté had just stepped into the services dossier after former VP Michael Di Grappa left the position. Over the last six months, Côté and other administrators organized a public forum and began consultations with student leaders, Sustainability Concordia and facilities management.

“There was some thinking to do,” said Mota. “And there are some who will [see] it as too little, too late, but I don’t think so at all. It is an informed decision.”

After a year of water politics, student leaders on campus are also pleased with the university’s decision.

“It’s a really fantastic step on Concordia’s part in showing some leadership in sustainability,” said Laura Beach, the founder of the TAPthirst anti-water privatization student group.

“But that said, it’s only one small step towards a more sustainable food and beverage system. What I’d really like to see in the future is more dialogue between students and the administration, especially leading up to the expiration of the PepsiCo. and Chartwell’s contracts. I’d really love to see an enforceable environmental purchasing policy before then as well.”

Though the bottled water cull can only take place in vending machines and is not applicable to existing contracts with other suppliers at the moment, the university has made an agreement with PepsiCo. that would see the food and beverage agreements expire at the same time.

With both the PepsiCo. and Chartwell’s contracts set to run out in 2015, Beach said that keeping the “really great dialoguing with the community,” specifically between students and administrators, is necessary “to ensure the inclusion of all stakeholders in this decision-making process and to come up with some good criteria for those contracts.”

The next step for the school is a communication and education campaign to promote the incoming water infrastructure and encourage the community to think about what—and how—they drink.

According to TAPthirst member Michael Heinermann, who found out about the announcement through colleagues last week, “it’s a big education process to wean people off the bottle, but if people are independent of it, they don’t realize that they don’t need it.”

Hoping to see communication channels and mechanisms between the student body and the administration improve as the phase-out continues as well, Heinermann explained that TAPthirst is happy with the decision, but would like to see more immediate outcomes of Concordia’s commitment to the bottled water issue.

Planning on working with the Concordia Student Union’s CUSAcorp branch, JavaU and places like Café X—establishments who still sell bottled water on campus—Heinermann anticipates that student outreach will continue to take the lead in making a bottled-water free Concordia a reality.

He said he believed that the student involvement on this issue is the driving force behind the recent decision to phase out the bottles.

“The PR [from the university] didn’t mention the referendum, and didn’t mention that it passed with 70 per cent of students in favour of the ban, which I found to be disempowering,” he said. “The students who have always been behind this movement should really be acknowledged.”

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