The plan went like this: When first-year students walked into their residence halls in late August, they would be greeted with bright red reusable water bottles that were branded with LMU’s logo and references to the Class of 2019. The bottles would “help develop our Lions to have green minds and live sustainable lives,” according to Trevor Wiseman, associate director of resident services of Student Housing.
However, housing officials received a brief email on Aug. 26, just days before move-in, saying that the water bottles would not be distributed in residence halls. “At this time, Lane Bove and Rich Rocheleau have agreed, it is better for LMU not to have Student Housing issue water bottles,” Director of Student Housing Steven Nygaard wrote in the email. No further reason was given to faculty and staff familiar with the situation, including officials in LMU Sustainability and Campus Recreation, who had agreed to contribute funds to pay for the bottles.
The recommendation to halt the giveaway originated in the office of Business Services and was approved in Student Affairs, where Bove and Rocheleau serve as senior vice president for student affairs and associate vice president for student life, respectively.
“It really came down to this particular business contract and financial arrangements of the University,” said Rocheleau, who added that Bove received the idea to ban the bottles from Ray Dennis, associate vice president of auxiliary management and business services, who manages the University’s contracts with outside businesses, including Coca-Cola and Sodexo. “Basically that was it. That was the overall deciding factor,” said Rocheleau.
The 1,300 bottles, which the Student Housing Office purchased months ago, currently sit in boxes. To keep them out of the students’ hands, Business Services purchased the bottles, and hopes to distribute them at alumni barbecues, summer camps, “or something like an open house or a preview day,” according to Dennis.
LMU is well-known for being a green campus; however, the halting of the water bottle giveaway has raised questions as to whether that term has more to do with the environment or with money.
“The rationale for discouraging the giveaway of that is ... we sell reusable bottles at the stores,” said Dennis.
The University would rake in over $20,000 if each freshman purchased a reusable bottle similar to the ones slated for the giveaway, with equivalent Nalgene containers sold for $16 apiece at the bookstore in the Von der Ahe Building. That figure excludes the revenue the school earns from plastic, single-use Dasani and Smartwater bottles, which are sold across campus for a few dollars each.
LMU is in contract with Coca-Cola, which bottles both Dasani and Smartwater. “Our obligation is to allow for the most positive opportunity for them to advance products and sales on campus,” Dennis said. “The University does not interfere with the opportunity for them to advance products and sales on campus,” Dennis said. “The University does not interfere with the opportunity for them to promote their products.”
Additionally, Business Services is currently developing two partnerships: one that would allow students to purchase refillable cups for use at on-campus dining venues, and another selling collectible drink containers for use at nearby Cinemark theatres. With both programs set to launch before the end of the calendar year, giving away reusable water bottles may be seen as an interference with LMU’s contracts.
A common complaint about plastic bottles is that they end up in landfills and oceans. However, LMU is the nationwide leader among universities in the recycling of plastic bottles. The school also recycles more paper and cardboard than any other university, and has the highest per-capita recycling rate in North America, according to the results of this past spring’s RecycleMania competition. “We’re not harming the environment in the sense that other organizations are,” Dennis noted. “We’re actually recycling more than we’re selling.”
But the impact of plastic bottles on the environment stretches beyond simply what happens to the bottles after their contents are consumed.
“The real significant thing about bottled water is that ... water is obviously very heavy to ship,” according to Ian McKeown, LMU’s campus sustainability officer. “You’re creating a bottle very far away, generally, and filling that with water far away, and that’s being shipped on trucks or by boat, which has a large environmental impact because of the oil and gas used to do that.”
Disagreeing with the concern that single-use water bottles are harmful to the environment, Dennis added, “There’s really no legs on it actually. In California, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a plastic bottle on the ground. Because whether you’re homeless or whatever, someone is always collecting them.”
Dennis suggested that single-use water bottles should be even less of a concern for LMU because of the University’s record of sustainability. “For the groups that are believing this is a sustainability issue, I say to those people, well, we’re number one in the nation in terms of the RecycleMania competition. No one came anywhere close to us.”
On the other side are those who believe that LMU’s identity as a Catholic and Jesuit institution gives the University a specific calling to do more to limit its environmental impact.
“Harm to the natural environment and the social environment are due to the same evil: moral relativity and the idea that human freedom is limitless,” said Dino Entac, who works in the Student Housing Office as associate director for resident ministry and leadership. Entac was quick to point out that Pope Francis chose care for the planet as the subject for his first encyclical, which was published last summer. “When we place our human desires above the needs of not harming creation, it is evil.”
“Catholic Social Teaching is clear: As stewards of creation, the just thing to do is to care for the environment and ensure that those generations that come after us have the same opportunities to partake in God’s creation as we have,” Entac added. “Caring for the environment includes doing all we can to conserve resources and educate those around us on that conservation.”
Despite the environmental concerns, there remains a strong demand for bottled water. The average American drank 32 gallons of bottled water in 2013, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. From a business perspective, this provides an opportunity for the University. “As with anything that’s sold on campus, there’s obviously an economic benefit to the university,” said Dennis. “It mitigates the tuition stressors. By not having these relationships [with auxiliary beverage providers], you would see significant increases in tuition.”
“You can stand out and watch them bring in their cases of bottled water on move-in day. That says to us that students do want that choice; they do want that safety and security,” added Dennis. “We don’t want to do anything to interfere with a person’s choice. We believe that people should have the choice, the right, to do whatever they want to do.”
However, the push toward reusable water bottles at LMU has been largely student-driven. The movement began several years ago, when requests from students prompted water bottle refill stations to be installed in several residence halls.
“We put one in Rosecrans first just to get the feedback, and everybody loved it. The usage was really high,” said Nan Miller, who was the director of resident services in the Student Housing Office at the time. He currently works in Facilities Management as director of academic custodial services. “Response has always been super positive.”
Although that initiative was well-received, campus-wide installation never occurred. This was due in large part to the difficulty of maintaining refill stations outdoors. Another aspect of the conversation, however, revolved around protecting LMU’s revenue streams.
“I think selling the water bottles on campus might have something to do with it, but I’m not entirely sure. It’s been brought up before. I won’t deny that,” said Miller.
The housing office’s efforts to move the University toward sustainable water consumption continued last year when each freshman living on campus received a free bottle.
“We got a lot of good feedback from the first-year students, so the plan was to do it again, and do it ongoing and really never stop,” said Wiseman.
“The plan was to build it into our budget as a part of every first year’s experience, so that after four years, every student at LMU would have a reusable water bottle. The goal was to reduce our dependency on plastic bottles,” Wiseman said. Because of the University’s logo on the bottle, as well as inscriptions of the graduation year for each class, the intention was also to provide a source of school spirit.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t been a part of the decision-making and don’t have a whole lot of understanding about why that decision was made,” Wiseman added. “I do trust explicitly in our senior leadership. I don’t know all the decision-making pieces, but I trust the decision that was made.”
Despite his department’s efforts in this area coming to a surprising halt, Wiseman remains optimistic.
“I want to give students the best possible experience at LMU. That’s with some of the water bottle stuff, but now we have to figure out what we can do. That’s where I have to put my focus and energy. We’ve figured, this doesn’t work here at LMU to give out reusable water bottles. I don’t know why, but I’m going to focus on what I can do.”