Last week, 998 students learned they had been admitted to the Class of 2022, joining their 964 early-admitted peers—the first of many messages that will flood their inboxes in the next few months, advertising a dizzying array of programs, offers, and opportunities. Some will join the College’s pre-orientation programs, and choose to come to Cambridge early to join Dorm Crew or the First-Year Urban Program, or head to New Hampshire and Vermont with the First-Year Outdoor Program. Some will color-code their Visitas calendars and learn about opportunities in public service, arts, on-campus jobs, affinity groups, and any of the myriad paths that you can chart here. But there is one tantalizing offer that they should ignore, one email that merits swift deletion: the bottled water subscription from Harvard Student Agencies.
There is no reason to suppose that bottled water is any better than tap water—our hyper-local water supply is very safe and secure. The water that flows through the taps in your dorm rooms is stored and purified at Fresh Pond, less than two miles from Harvard Yard. This is because Cambridge manages its own municipal watershed, unlike most cities. The Watershed Management Division of the Cambridge Water Department protects the supply chain of Cambridge water before it goes through a five-step purification process to eliminate pathogens and particulate matter. The Water Department even offers free public tours of their treatment facility at Fresh Pond. Cambridge is also connected to the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, which provides backup water when our aquifers reach abnormally low levels, as occurred in 2016.
Thus, the water that flows through Harvard pipes is the result of a state-of-the-art municipal purification and distribution system, and the end result is consistently safe water. Cambridge has been well within acceptable levels for each trace element that is tracked in every water quality report published since 2003, the earliest year for which statistics are available. Additionally, the City’s standards are almost equivalent to that of the bottled water company Poland Spring, which is similarly compliant. Thus, there are no health-related arguments for ordering bottled water in Cambridge. As a tap water campaign from the freshman sustainability think tank Green ’20 documented last year, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and other College notables trust Cambridge water, and the “Cambridge Water: Wicked Good” sticker campaign has spread the word at public water sources throughout the rest of the city.
While bottled water may be comparably safe, it has a substantially negative environmental impact compared to tap water. A study published in Nature found that the ecological and carbon footprints of bottled water outpaced that of tap water by about 300 times, a devastating effect. The Pacific Institute estimates that the petroleum used to manufacture a standard single-use bottle could fill that bottle one-quarter full with oil. This only captures the pre-consumption effects, as the vast majority of bottles end up either in landfills or in waterways; approximately 91 percent of plastic bottles are not recycled. There is also a substantial financial cost to using bottled water, both through HSA and in general, as bottled water is estimated to cost between 300 and 2000 times as much as tap water.
There is certainly more that both Harvard and Cambridge can do to discourage the excessive bottled water consumption that HSA encourages. Cambridge could adopt a tax on bottled water to discourage their use; a similar policy for single-use plastic bags, the Bring Your Own Bag ordinance, has been in effect for several years. For its part, Harvard could apply the same restrictions to HSA’s in-dorm services that it applies to similar businesses, or could ban plastic bottles altogether. This was proposed in a 2013 UC referendum that passed with 64 percent of the vote, and was endorsed by The Crimson Editorial Board. However, the proposal has not been implemented. Despite this, both the City and the University have already fulfilled their most fundamental responsibility on the issue: to make it safe and convenient for students to drink tap water instead. Harvard has taken actions ranging from creating bottle refill stations, to banning plastic bottle sales at certain campus cafés, to eliminating single-use plastic bottles at Commencement.
The remaining responsibility for reducing single-use plastic bottle consumption on campus lies largely with students, and the incoming freshmen whom HSA targets for water subscriptions can play a pivotal role. So as you get ready for life on campus over the next four years, don’t subscribe to water bottle delivery. Buy a reusable bottle, or pick up one of the myriad reusable bottles that seem to appear at virtually every College-sponsored event here, and use it. Many dorms have in-suite sinks, but even if this requires what HSA refers to as “tiresome runs up and down stairs,” it’s worth it. A marine mammal will thank you.
Will H. MacArthur ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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