When Andrea Cheng first arrived at UBC, she got frustrated trying to fill her water bottle. The Applied Biology major found that the MacMillan Building had no fountains, and neither did neighbouring buildings. The Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems (ICICS) had one, but it was hard to find.

“And CIRS wasn’t built yet,” she recalls, “so the whole area was like a desert! I could go into the washroom with my water bottle, but nobody wants to do that!” Three years later Cheng needed a subject for a directed studies project, and her supervisor mentioned water. “That’s when I got interested,” she says with a grin. One year on and Cheng’s project has led to the creation of a UBC committee that meets regularly to work out the logistics of phasing out bottled water on campus.

Partnering for Change

Like the many Social Ecological Economic Development Studies (SEEDS) projects now taking place on campus, this is a unique partnership between faculty (faculty and students in Land and Food Systems, Commerce and the Sauder School of Business), staff (Building Operations, Student Housing and Hospitality Services and Athletics & Recreation) and Campus Sustainability, which oversees SEEDS.

“I saw right away that there was a huge knowledge gap,” says Cheng. “There was no record of where the fountains were on campus, or if they were in good condition.” So the project started with an inventory. At the same time a marketing class in Commerce was drafted in to work on a parallel SEEDS project, to develop a social marketing plan to promote access to clean UBC tap water on campus.

Common Energy UBC, a student group dedicated to making UBC more sustainable, spearheaded the public outreach. They ran a campaign, “Tap That,” that collected hundreds of signatures on a petition. The result was UBC’s recent Tap Water Declaration, which adopts most of the social marketing plan.

More Sustainable, Less Wasteful

“The driving factors are mainly sustainability and waste,” says Bud Fraser, UBC’s Water and Zero Waste Engineer. “It’s big-picture thinking. We have such good drinking water here at UBC, we want to secure our access to it. It’s just a matter of assessing the infrastructure, looking at what improvements it might need.”

“Then there is the social marketing component. Once the infrastructure is in place, we have to make it obvious and promote it. They’ve selected an icon, a basic water fountain with a bottle-filling capability, with a really good system for signing it, so the water sources are all easy to find.”

Five “WaterFillz” stations have now been designed (by UBC students) and installed, with a sixth coming: two in SUB and one each in the MacMillan, Sing Tao, Fred Kaiser and Engineering buildings. “The idea is to position them where they are most needed,” explains Cheng, “mostly by washrooms and in other high-traffic areas. And they need to be easy to identify, and universally accessible, so everyone can fill up their water bottles.”

No One Should Be Spending Money On Bottled Water

So why should we care? Cheng has a passionate response.

“I care because UBC has very good tap water—it’s monitored very frequently quality-wise. It’s just not necessary to buy bottled water — it’s not something I want to spend a lot of money on, or anyone should be spending resources on. We don’t want to be adding all that plastic to the environment.”

This is the fourth SEEDS project in a long-reaching series. Cheng is now doing an inventory of Food Service outlets and their fountains, and talking to UBC Athletics about water outlets at the sports fields in South Campus. There’s a plan to add an “H2O Page” to the UBC Mobile App mapping drinking water sources (including the AMS “WaterFillz” stations, taps, gooseneck taps, and fountains), and a proposal to run a campaign in the student residences, reminding people to never leave home without the three necessities: key, cell phone, water bottle.

Water for Catering and Emergencies

So how realistic is the goal of a bottled water-free campus?

“Oh, the reality is that the campus will never be completely water bottle free! We store bottles for emergencies, and catering will always use some. That’s another area of research—how can we supply water for events without using single-use bottles?”

“We’ll never get rid of every disposable bottle. But there is quite a lot of room to decrease the campus’s bottled water consumption. Like everything, it just takes a while for people’s attitudes and behaviours to change.”