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Hanley Sustainability Institute

Aluminum water bottles on campus at University of Dayton

By Brennen Geiger

Hamburger or hotdog? Sandals or shoes? "Seinfeld" or "Friends?" Aluminum or plastic? These age-old choices have plagued humanity and caused much debate, but it’s time to put one of these to rest on the University of Dayton campus.

During the 2023-24 school year, the University offered for sale an aluminum option for bottled water. This is a direct action to support two of the university’s main sustainability goals under dining: support procurement for the common good and support sustainable dining opportunities. This move is the first step toward reducing the amount of plastic  consumed on campus, but is it enough?  

To start, why does it matter what type of bottle is available with nearly all students having their own reusable bottle? For one, not all students carry reusable water bottles with them at all times and therefore, need an option to purchase water. Just because students have reusable water bottles with them does not mean they can fill them. There are a multitude of dry areas on campus that lack a water fountain or station to refill your water bottle. One such location is Virginia W. Kettering dining hall, with no water fountains inside the dining area. Students are forced to enter the residential areas to refill their bottles. This lack of availability makes purchasing a bottle of water the more convenient option.  

During the 2023-24 school year, over 52,000 single-use plastic bottles and 2,100 aluminum bottles were sold on campus. Currently, aluminum-bottled water is only available in the Virginia W. Kettering dining hall, and it's tucked away on the very bottom shelf of one refrigerator.

If students are going to purchase bottled water, why not make a more sustainable option available more widely on campus?

Despite the low volume sold, students demand more aluminum options. In a poll posted on YikYak and Fizz, two social media apps used by UD students, students were asked if they would prefer aluminum over plastic bottles for water on campus. After 852 votes, 57% of students voted in favor of aluminum options, dwarfing the current 2.9% aluminum options available on campus.  

With a majority of students voting in favor of aluminum bottles, why not supply more to campus? Cost is an issue, as the price for UD to obtain aluminum bottles far exceeds the cost for plastic. This expense is passed along to consumers, who pay $2.65 for aluminum-bottled water and $1.60 for plastic.

One factor in this increased cost is distribution. As a Pepsi campus, the University of Dayton sources the  majority of its drinks and food from PepsiCo. The university’s distribution center is still new to distributing aluminum-bottled water and the demand in the area is not high enough to balance the cost with traditional plastic. As the region’s demand increases and more bulk orders for aluminum cans are made, prices can decrease.

With a slight majority of students in support of more aluminum bottles on campus, perhaps the availability of the bottles and pricing is not the only issue. There could be initiatives aimed at enlightening students about the environmental advantages of using aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles. Aluminum is not only easier and cheaper to recycle, but it also provides a safer option for repeated use and refills compared to plastic bottles. This information could be disseminated through stickers in the fridges highlighting the aluminum option and educating students.

It could also be accompanied by a mass email to the student body, alerting them to the aluminum option with more information on why to choose aluminum bottles, such as the health concerns associated with microplastics.  

Recently, the Summer Fellows working at the Hanley Sustainability Institute attended a virtual sustainability summit by PepsiCo. The summit covered multiple sustainability topics, from sourcing to energy usage, but the biggest topic on all the attendants' minds was packaging. PepsiCo talked about their commitment to convert to 100% recycled plastic used in all of their products by 2030, which is good, but not enough. Attendants grilled PepsiCo with questions in the comment section about switching packaging to aluminum options for all their beverages, including water. As Pepsi pushed the summit along past packaging, it became apparent the reason for the lack of aluminum water options on campus is not just the cost for UD but resistance to change from the source: PepsiCo.  

College students are forced to make decisions every day. From worrying about classes, current and future, to dealing with tumultuous relationships, students have a busy schedule. Students are more likely to adopt sustainable habits if the choice is easier.

Dining Services plans to offer aluminum bottles in more locations on campus next school year. As students, we can put action to our opinion by purchasing aluminum bottles when we forget our water bottles and encourage our peers to do the same. In addition, we can make our voice heard by PepsiCo and continue pressing the issue that we demand more aluminum water bottles rather than plastic. While the jury is still out for hamburgers or hotdogs, it’s obvious that by popular vote and by the university’s sustainability goals, aluminum packaging for water is a necessary step for the University of Dayton.

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