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End Bowdoin’s use of plastic water bottles

March 29, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

In most respects, Bowdoin is the environmentally-minded college it’s touted to be, but it is falling short in one crucial area: It sells disposable plastic water bottles on campus and distributes them to sports teams for their travels. These products are contributing to our planet’s demise in a myriad of ways, and the College should end its sale and use of them, as several other colleges and universities have already done.

Before I go further, let’s look at what exactly plastic does to us and our environment. Plastic degrades over time into microplastics, which are pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters in diameter. Researchers have found microplastics in every part of our environment—including our oceans, soil and our bodies—and have shown them to harm the organisms they inhabit.

It’s not just microplastics. Researchers are also finding nanoplastics—less than one micrometer in diameter and even more pervasive— in just about everything, including, of course, our plastic-bottled water. Research published earlier this year showed that there are almost 100,000 particles of nanoplastic per liter in this water, partly because it is packaged in plastic. What’s scary is that researchers don’t yet know what nanoplastics or microplastics will do to us. However, two recent studies have found them in human blood and breast milk, suggesting potential harm to our health.

As I mentioned, Bowdoin sells plastic in the C-Store (Polar brand, of course) and sends cases of these water bottles to sports teams’ away games. There they sit on the hot, sunny seats of coach buses where the plastic degrades even more. And, though we would like to think that disposable plastic water bottles are recycled, only about 20 percent of them actually are. Instead, many of them end up in the ocean or in landfills, where they degrade into more microplastics.

Beyond the disturbing effects of microplastics and nanoplastics, the production and transportation of the bottles to Bowdoin contribute to fossil fuel emissions. Plastic is made from petrochemicals, which are derived from fossil fuels; the production of one bottle emits about three ounces of carbon dioxide. That might not sound like very much, but across the world, people use 1.3 billion water bottles every day, amounting to almost 122,000 tons of daily carbon emissions.

Now, plastic comes in many forms, from our phones to our car keys to our wallets. Plastic will become even more widespread as oil companies begin to use more of their products to produce plastic. So why focus on disposable plastic water bottles? Because they are unnecessary and easily replaced by reusable water bottles, often made of metal or glass, instead of plastic. They are accessible to all students, too: Bowdoin offers reusable Nalgene water bottles to every incoming student during Orientation and again each year to athletes on campus.

To get ahead of any inadequate solutions, I should say that the other, newly popular disposable substitutes for plastic water bottles, such as boxed water and canned water, have their own problems. Producers claim that boxed water cartons are more sustainable, but the cartons are difficult to recycle and make into new cartons because they are layered with multiple materials. Only 60 percent of recycling centers accept them at all. And aluminum cans have a reputation for being endlessly recyclable, but this truth has limits: Aluminum wears out and becomes harder to recycle with time. The insides of aluminum cans are also coated in epoxy, which has potential health consequences.

Other colleges and universities—such as Washington University in St. Louis and Vanderbilt University—have already banned the sale of disposable plastic water bottles. Bowdoin would do well to follow their lead.

Chloë Sheahan is a member of the Class of 2026.


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