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U of Winnipeg to phase out sales of bottled water on campus

Chinta Puxley, Globe & Mail (Canada) March 24, 2009

WINNIPEG — The University of Winnipeg says it is taking a stand against water for profit as well as plastic containers that end up in landfills by becoming the first campus in Canada to ban bottled water sales.

The decision announced yesterday follows a referendum last week in which three-quarters of students who voted said they were in favour of ditching the 38,000 bottles of water sold on the downtown campus each year.

The University of Washington was the first to ban bottled water sales in the United States and Winnipeg students say they are now blazing the same trail in Canada.

The bottled water industry argues that bans simply drive students to buy unhealthy drinks. But Lloyd Axworthy, president of the Winnipeg university, said the ban is part of a growing global awareness about the importance of accessible water.

“We’re talking about 35,000 bottles that would be saved from going into landfills, which is a substantial contribution,” Mr. Axworthy said in an interview. “It also draws attention to the fact that fresh water from taps is something that can be utilized and we encourage the use of tap water as a safe way of drinking.”

Bottled water is to be phased out from campus cafeterias and vending machines over the next few months, while the university installs more water fountains for thirsty students. An audit of the water system will ensure tap water is safe.

Every first-year student will also get a free, reusable water bottle when they begin classes in the fall, student president Vinay Iyer said.

“Water should not be commodified. Water is a basic right and it should be free. Bottled water has really undermined public faith in public water. Public water is absolutely safe, clean and healthy.”

Where municipal water is tested daily – often every few hours – for contaminants, some bottled water plants are inspected only every three years, Mr. Iyer pointed out.

But beyond those concerns, bottled water is a multibillion-dollar industry which is hurting the environment, he added. Only 12 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled, Mr. Iyer said.

“The rest of the bottles end up in places where they don’t belong like landfills and oceans. We’re letting students know that bottled water is just a fad and tap water is very, very safe.”

Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, said a ban is not the way to go. Universities are “closed communities” and restricting water sales will only force students to buy sugary drinks still on offer, she said.

“Our competition is other packaged beverages.”

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