Walk into any RIT-hosted event and you'll find many choices of canned sodas or maybe even juice. One thing is missing, though: bottled water.

The reason for this dates back to an RIT policy established in 2012. The policy disallowed university funds to be spent on single servings of bottled water, which can sound like an agreeable idea when considering the economic, environmental and social issues with bottled water. The tap water at RIT comes from Hemlock Lake, an undeveloped water source, which “is of high quality and is at least 2000% less expensive than bottled water,” according to a 2012 report by the Camps Environmental Committee at RIT.

The policy was eventually passed, and in the years since, it seems to have fallen off the radar of the RIT community. Few have questioned why, despite the policy’s original timeline, bottled water is still present in most of the dining locations and vending machines on campus, including the vending machine in the sustainability building. Additionally, little question has been raised within the community as to what impacts the portions of the policy that have been enacted have had thus far. It is time for a review.

The Policy

The bottled water policy was one of Enid Cardinal’s first assignments when she was hired as RIT’s Senior Sustainability Advisor, handed directly to her by President Destler himself. Nonetheless, it has been a long process.

“It wasn’t something I was going to move forward on without input from everyone,” said Cardinal.

RIT’s bottled water policy states in its most basic form that “University funds may not be used to purchase single serving bottles of water.” After being implemented in 2012, the policy was phased in for events held at RIT over six months “to provide adequate time to make adjustments.”

There are reasonable exceptions to the policy, including when tap water is of questionable quality. Additionally, the policy allowed for Dining Services to continue to sell bottled water in vending machines, retail locations and at sporting events. However, the policy stipulated that "after the current vending contract expires, no new contracts for bottled water will be entered into."

This section was published in 2012 with the rest of the policy. Just two years later, in 2014, RIT entered into a new contract with Coca-Cola after the campus’s contract with Pepsi expired and new brands of bottled water appeared on campus. Cardinal explained that, despite straying from the original policy, the new contract was entered into with a plan in mind.

“We actually worked very closely together when the pouring rights contract went out, and bottled water was explicitly called out in there that we were looking to phase it out. So it was structured with that so we don’t necessarily get penalized,” said Cardinal. “It was my call to okay the removal of bottled water from vending machines and from retail, but I wasn’t okay with the availability of hydration stations.”

Construction code has been updated so that hydration stations are included in all new buildings. In addition, many water fountains have been retrofitted to easily refill reusable water bottles, but there is still more work to be done. While Cardinal has a priority list of buildings to add hydration stations to, many buildings, such as the residence halls, do not have the proper plumbing in place. Adding hydration stations to those buildings would come at a great cost to the university.

In years to come, Cardinal, members of RIT Dining Services, Coca-Cola and other partners will slowly work to reduce the presence of bottled water on campus, and to someday fully adhere to the original policy. In the meantime, some issues have been raised with the policy, and some question whether the goals of the policies have been reached or should be reevaluated.

The Present

Molly Rockford and Karlee Bushnell are both fourth year Nutrition Management majors and co-presidents of the Student Dietetic Association (SDA). They were interviewed just a week after an event they put on encouraging students to drink more water and less sugary beverages.

Rockford recalled an event she went to the weekend prior. “I was just thinking, I was at the Connectology conference this past weekend and they mentioned that they couldn’t do water bottles because of the policy," she said. "When we went to lunch, we got a box lunch and it was just cans of soda, and I was like it’s a good thing I have my water bottle with me.”

Both students carry around their water bottles everywhere. But Rockford and Bushnell worry that some other students are not as readily prepared with water bottles in hand, or as willing to search out water fountains.

This is one of the issues with the policy: events are not able to provide single serving bottles of water, which leads some event managers to provide no water at all.

“One of the commitments we also made was that we weren’t going to force users to make a choice between sugary beverages and remove the healthier water option,” said Cardinal about writing the policy. The bottled water policy even states “For all other catered operations, bottled water will be replaced with bulk water.” But this is not always the case. Some events now go without water and instead only serve soda products.

Mary Anne McQuay, the Registered Dietitian for RIT Dining Services, advised that soda is okay on occasion. From her perspective, the occasional lack of water is more of a customer service issue. Nonetheless, McQuay said, “It can obviously, over time, have an impact on somebody. I don’t want to say health and wellness, but possibly it can depending on what the event is.”

The lack of water is usually observed at events catered by off-campus organizations and by students themselves. Guests to campus, students new to event planning and outside caterers alike seem to struggle the most with understanding the policy and providing water.

“We are one of the minorities in schools that ban bottled water, and people just don’t understand it, so there’s a lot of education that still needs to go on,” said Todd Raethka, manager of Catering Operations for Brick City Catering. As an entity working within RIT’s campus, Brick City Catering struggles less with providing water. In fact, Raethka says that they try to throw in water for events they cater whenever they can, but “it’s just not bottled.”

Raethka was working for Brick City Catering before the policy change and noticed that they went from ordering 20 cases of water a week to about 5 cases in the last year. Instead, they have moved to providing water in large, clear containers consistent with the RIT policy.

Cardinal advises organizations providing beverages without Brick City Catering to follow a similar strategy. Bulk water was intentionally unmentioned in the policy so that events could still have the option of buying water, although Cardinal hopes that people will seek other alternatives. She also mentions that some departments have started ordering their own reusable pitchers and containers for water.

Brick City Catering also offers lemonade and iced tea in bulk containers, and has started offering infused water as a healthier bulk option as of this past fall. As for soda, they switched from 20 ounce bottles to 12 ounce after noticing that there were often many half-empty bottles left at the end of the night, according to Raethka. These smaller bottles have been beneficial in many ways. “It provides us with more space in our storage facilities and our coolers, it’s less waste and less things going into the recycling stream,” said Raethka. But to some, the permissions for single-serving bottled soda over water seems contradictory.

“Why would you just take away the water? That’s really sticking with me. Like the soda is still in plastic bottles,” said Rockford. “It is limiting the plastic on campus, but the soda still comes in a plastic bottle, so it’s not really offering a better nutritional option.”

Kevin Kane, a third year Business Management major and manager for Cardinal's sustainability team, had similar thoughts. “I do think it’s a little weird that bottled soda is still okay, because then at these events on campus, there’s Coke and Diet Coke and Sprite, and it’s everywhere, and there’s these really dense bottles that have a lot more plastic than bottled water bottles do because they have to contain the carbonation,” he explained.

Even after removing bottles, there will always need to be a vessel to contain beverages, and there is still waste associated with that. Some see the removal of bottled water, or any other bottled beverage, as an infringement on their choices. Or it may simply throw them too far out of their comfort zones. For some, it can be strange to trust tap water if they are from a place where it isn't of great quality. Those used to bottled water may not be happy if it were suddenly removed from campus.

Evan Zackary, a fourth year Environmental Sustainability, Health and Safety major and a member of both the Student Government’s Sustainability Committee and the Student Environmental Action League (SEAL), understands the need for a conscientious transition. “You can’t make the transition to being more sustainable unpleasant, or people disengage and go to Wegmans and buy like pallets of bottled beverages, and you’ve taken steps backwards,” he explained. 

Determining how to make the transition pleasant involves addressing concerns about nutrition and worries about either not going far enough or going too far with reducing plastic bottles. Looking into the future of the policy and implementation, it is important that these factors are taken into consideration.

The Future

“Right now, [the future is] really working on rolling out the remaining portions of [the policy]. So the next phase of it will be lightly pulling it out of our dining venues where there’s tap water already readily available, whether that be through a fountain or whether that be through a hydration station or a freestyle,” Cardinal said. Sometime next academic year, retail dining locations on the academic side of campus will start phasing out bottled water, she predicts. “But we are still working on the logistics. It is not finalized yet.”

Kory Samuels, the executive director of Dining Services, agrees with Cardinal on the next steps. “The next piece of it as of now would be to limit flat bottled water beverages in our retail locations, and we've started right now with concessions. I don’t think we really publicized that, but every concessions we have from Ritter to the [Gordon Field House] to Polisseni, we don’t sell base bottled water.” This may be a change that students have not noticed either due to the availability of options or the fact that Smart Water is considered a value-added product, not water.

“You can get a Smart Water or other enhanced water beverages, but we do not sell Dasani water,” said Samuels. The added electrolytes in Smart Water are enough to differentiate it from water out of the tap, according to Cardinal and Samuels, meaning that the policy doesn’t apply to it.

Students interviewed for this article, though, viewed Smart Water and others as one in the same. McQuay saw the difference between the two but mentioned that “within the waters, there’s water that’s enhanced with electrolytes, things of that nature, which really aren’t necessary for normal people. I mean you really have to be working out for better than an hour to have to replace those electrolytes … but for most people, just plain water is fine.” The issue of Smart Water versus other waters brings back the question of whether or not all bottled beverages should be removed from campus.

Samuels said the focus is exclusively on bottled water because, when removing bottled water, you are not removing an item or option other than the bottle itself; the water is still available. Samuels said with soda bottles, it’s different: “It is sensitive because you are taking away choice.”

With the new Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, though, there are hundreds of options, including ones that are not available in bottles, and water was specially programmed into the RIT machines in order to make that option more accessible. Zackary believes that RIT’s campus is almost ready to start removing bottled beverages across the board. “This is kind of frustrating because we have already done the work to shift away from this," he said. "We have made the step forward already. It’s been done.”

For the next steps, he believes that we should start pulling bottled water from our shelves in locations whose products you sit down to eat and drink directly after purchase, like Brick City and the concessions stands, which Samuels and Cardinal also believe in. All three also agree that snack locations like the Corner Store, where products are often bought to consume at a later time, should go through the transition from bottled beverages later.

“Long term vision is 20 years from now, every building has hydration stations in it so you don’t have to worry about this," Cardinal said. "It will probably take that long to get to some of the buildings that are harder to update, 10 years at least.” Ten to twenty years from now is a much longer timeline for implementation than the original proposal, which set the removal of water bottles on campus to the end of the Pepsi contract in 2014. One of the main barriers standing in the way is ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access water as an option. From Cardinal’s perspective, there is just not equal access yet, leading her to believe that it is important to keep water in most campus vending machines, at least until that point is reached.

All except those in the Sustainability Hall. “We will likely pull it out of the sustainability vending machines this year,” said Cardinal. “That was the first place I got complaints because we have hydration stations on every floor of that building, so we don’t need them.”

In the end, Cardinal and her team are trying to make the policy work for the campus while avoiding any negative impacts, although it can be difficult to predict consequences.

“As much as we want to do all our research and talk with folks before we get our stuff done we also don’t want to be in a standstill for the next 20 years," said Samuels. Their teams are planning to take their time, but they are moving, and it appears that the teams need to be receptive to others’ perspectives if they want to make their voices heard.

As everyone gets used to the change in the way water is accessed, there have been and will continue to be bumps. Kane gave a final reminder: “We do care. We are trying. Really hard.”