Poor water taste causes high bottled water sales

by Chase VanFlein-Hage

Sun Star

“As soon as your water starts tasting bad–the aesthetic qualities that we don’t have much control over… people stop using that water and go to other sources that are more expensive, or even, less safe,” Ben Stacy,  UAF’s water plant supervisor said.

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Freshman Moses Sohn drinks water out of one of the filling stations. Besides buying water, the filling stations are the only other option for water that doesn’t taste like metal. – Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

Stacy explained that the water on campus exceeds all federal and state regulations; it has some of the lowest levels of arsenic in the state and, for the last few years, is barely measurable. The water tastes fine at the water treatment facility. The flavors students taste further up the hill comes from the pipes used to transport the water.

Students have mainly resorted to bottled water. The reasons could be due to a lack of options on campus or for perceived quality and convenience.

“Besides coffee, bottled water is our number one seller here,” a Wood Center employee said.

Bottled water is one of the top selling beverages on campus, according to Dining Services. It can be purchased at the Campus Cache, at the food court in the Wood Center and from several coffee shops as well as at vending machines across campus.

According to Gavin Northey, UAF’s Dining Services’ Director of Retail, “Campus is following the national trend. Bottled water is booming. People want to buy bottled water.”

Northey says that the Smart Water brand of bottled water is a top seller. Only soda outsells it.

The 2009 film, “Tapped,” is a documentary on the bottled water industry. According to the film, the industry is dominated by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. In 2007 there were 29 billion bottles of water sold in the United States. The industry is an $11.5 billion business.

The film examines the profit-heavy business. At least 40 percent of the bottled water on the market is simply filtered tap water. Tapped points out that it costs between 6 to 11 cents per gallon to bottle the water. Then, that same water sells for roughly $6.00 per gallon.

One of the hidden costs of bottled water is that it is shipped to cities all over the country. Shipping water uses a huge amount of energy. Most of the water that makes it to Alaska comes from the West Coast. However, there is at least one company based in Anchorage that bottles its own water.

Penny Cotton, Vice President for Marketing and Communications for NANA Corporation, said, “The university makes money on bottled-water sales. NANA is a private for-profit company. The university owns the facilities and gets payments from us, which are a percentage of sales.”

“I usually drink a gallon of Fred Meyer’s brand water each day,” said hockey player, Nik Yaremchuk. This extra expense costs him $1.20 a day, or nearly 10dollars a week. “I buy a week’s supply of water every week and that works great for me.”

On-campus sales revenues from bottled water add up to more than $100,000 annually. Aurora Vending, the owners of the vending machines on campus, earned roughly $5,867 in the first quarter of 2013 through water sales alone. In that same time span, Dining Services earned approximately $21,000. These numbers were acquired from Aurora Vending Company and from Justin Baker, the Account Manager for UAF Dining Services.

The school year consists of eight months in-session and four months of break. During sessions, bottled water sales are highest.

An estimate of how many bottles are purchased and disposed of on campus each year was obtained from the above numbers. There are over 15,000 bottles sold each year on campus alone. All of those bottles eventually end up as trash.

Cotton encourages students to use a Brita filter.

Northey uses a Brita water filter himself. It is located in his office in the Wood Center.

The only option students have for free and easy access to water that does not have any metallic flavors are located at the filling stations purchased by the Office of Sustainable Living. These are located in the Moore, Bartlett and Skarland dorm complex and the Student Recreation Center. There is also one upstairs in the Wood Center. These machines filter the water and take out any flavors that may have been picked up during transport through the pipes.

Stacy says that the bottle filling stations really help. “I love the idea of having devices on campus where people can walk up and get clean, good-tasting water.” More importantly, “they create a lot more usage on campus. The water turns over in the system, it has a cumulative effect on improving the water quality overall. Every time I give a tour to students. I always tell them, ‘take that 30-minute shower.’ We have plenty of water. Students can help turn over the water in the system.”

“I fill up my bottles there all the time….everyday,” said UAF Residence Life employee, Anna Gagne-Hawes.

Michele Hebert, Director of the Office of Sustainability at UAF addresses a drawback. “The problem is they require a lot of maintenance in changing the filters and that’s really expensive.” Hebert adds that the filters need to be replaced more often, “because our water is so hard, they have to put in big salt units in the walls.”

The Office of Sustainability is attempting to get more of these stations installed. Northey believes that more water filter stations on campus wouldn’t be a threat to Dining Services’ sales of bottled water.

UAF had proposed a few alternatives years ago, according to Stacy, they had looked into bottling their own water. “I don’t know why they ever abandoned the project but I think they were looking into it. I don’t know if it was an investment deal, like they didn’t want to invest the time or money.”

Another proposed idea was, “a bulk water-hauling station, kind of like what you see with Water Wagon and those types of places where people drive up. I don’t know if 20 years ago these were ideas to just generate revenue or whether it was to try to fix this situation of having bad tasting water on campus,” Stacy said.

There is a haul station just down the road from the university. The current price is two cents per gallon.

The Office of Sustainability is hoping to install a similar setup on campus in the near future. Sustainability also hopes that new water-filling stations will assist on cutting back the number of water bottles sold on campus.

Currently there are not many options for students on campus other than purchasing bottled water. The Office of Sustainability is the only group actively trying to provide more options. They are heading toward offering several sustainable options for students to obtain fresh tasting water.

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