Tap Dancers: Bottled Water and College Students

Ashley Thorne

Yesterday our receptionist found a gangly bug in her cup. She put a note on the large blue water cooler in our office kitchen and exhorted all of us to use bottled water until further notice. Nobody suggested drinking from the tap.

But outside our office island, many others are suggesting it. Across the country, sustainability promoters are urging people to “take back the tap” and “think outside the bottle.” It’s the latest activism trend: elevate drinking tap water in hopes of putting bottled water companies out of business. And of course, the most strategic place for activism is the college campus.

One water rights group, Takebackthetap.org, is a student-based “college campaign that encourages students and entire campuses to cut existing contracts with bottled water corporations and promote the use of tap water.” Under Food and Water Watch, Takebackthetap offers resources to help people “raise awareness in their cities about the deception behind bottled water.”

The deceptions it’s referring to are the myths that bottled water is cleaner and tastes better than tap water, and that water is a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. On the contrary, says the campaign, water is a natural resource that is, like air, a basic human right. Everyone should have access to free, pure drinking water; spending money on it is wasteful. Tap water is just as good, and plastic bottles—hardly ever recycled—harm the environment.

Think Outside the Bottle, a similar campaign under Corporate Accountability International, also markets to students. Its “How to think outside the bottle on campuses” page features smiling students in blue t-shirts volunteering and speaking in public—the perfect picture of leadership. It also provides an Activist’s Guide to Challenging City Spending on Bottled Water and an application for its summer internship program, Slingshot. Among the qualifications for entrance into the program is a “commitment to progressive social change.” And a welcoming postscript invites, “People of color, lesbians, and gay men are encouraged to apply.”

Both Takebackthetap and Think Outside the Bottle prompt people to take a Pledge to choose tap water over bottled water and to support public funding for safe and affordable tap water. According to Deborah Lapidus, national campaigns director for Corporate Accountability International, roughly 12,000 people, mostly college students, have signed a TOTB pledge. Think Outside the Bottle includes a USA map showing schools that support the pledge. The dots on the map number about 60, but only six of them are west of Texas. I got a clue about the scarcity from a Californian friend who says that the tap water in her home state is too bad to drink and even to use for brushing teeth. She now lives in New York and loves the tap water.

Both campaigns also host “tap water challenges,” in which student volunteers set up a booth in the public square and ask passers-by to see if, blindfolded, they can tell the difference between local tap and bottled water. (Interesting to note: these tap water challenges budget bottled water purchases made by the same people who have pledged to boycott the bottle.) Most who take the challenge, the websites boast, can’t tell the difference. I was curious about this experiment and tried it on a couple of my colleagues, but got mixed results: one could taste a difference, one couldn’t. I suppose I shall have to tag along with TOTB for more conclusive findings.

Takebackthetap recently sponsored a student video contest called I Heart Tap Water. Alec Baldwin was among the celebrity judges selected to choose who would win the $1,500 first place prize. The purpose of the videos was for students to make a pitch to their campus to stop drinking bottled water. I watched a few of the finalist videos. In the one that placed second, three male white students rap, “Tap dat water, tap, tap dat water.” Toward the end, one rapper solemnly vows, “I pledge allegiance to tap water: a drink, a beverage—nay, a lifestyle. So American and so tasty…”

We won’t dwell on the video-makers’ confusing assertions of tap water’s “lifestyle” of patriotism. It is strange, however, to see such widespread eagerness to pledge allegiance to a natural resource because it is a human right, while pledging allegiance to a flag because it represents one nation under God is considered offensive. I suppose it’s a fluid form of patriotism. 

On the other hand, many colleges are actually branding their own their bottled water, complete with college  name and logo on the label. The University of Delaware, Brown, Dartmouth, and Dickinson, Gettysburg and Franklin and Marshall Colleges, all use private labels and sell water bottles emblazoned with college insignia.

Brandeis University, however, is looking to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. University President Jehuda Reinharz recently announced the new policy and said that it was motivated by students’ concerns for the environment. To help the college understand the decision, President Reinharz plans to screen the forthcoming documentary called FLOW: For Love of Water, which exposes “the precarious relationship between humanity and water… with an unflinching focus on politics, pollution, and human rights.”

The university curriculum is also following the trend. The University of Arizona has a highly developed Water Sustainability Program, “a university-wide collaboration of scientists and educators.” The Harvard Campus Energy Reduction Program holds water tasting events and appeals to students to drink from the faucet. One university-sponsored program was the Gender Water Network, under the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. It bids, “Anyone with interest in gender and/or water can join the GWN.”  Gender and water? You read it here first: at the confluence of oppression studies and aqua sensitivity, springs the eternal eco-feminist.  

Water rights movements are gaining momentum, and tap water advocates may eventually accomplish their goal of draining the bottling companies dry. Progressive causes do, however, have a way of entangling themselves in contradictions. What happens to tiny third world Fiji if the market for Fiji Water evaporates? 

In any event, the tap water rebellion nicely illustrates how the sustainability movement is gaining ground on campus. Its advocates look for ways to start trends in everyday personal behavior that make those who fail to go along stand out. Drinking tap water in all likelihood will do nothing whatsoever to “save the earth,” but it will provide a handy way to spot the thirsty souls who continue to gulp their Perrier/Evian/Deer Park/Poland Springs heedless of the new standard of morality. 

The tap water movement is, above all, about prompting people to conform their outward behavior to a social ethic, in which the substance matters less than the conformity. Suddenly Sustainatopia has a national beverage. Woe to those who drink from bottles. Join the tap dance or sit it out.

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