Water. It’s a good thing. People need it. And several decades ago, beverage companies started selling bottled water, which allowed people to meet their hydration needs and live healthier lifestyles.

Then those plastic bottles began showing up in landfills en masse. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch swelled with plastics that wouldn’t biodegrade, even after centuries. A solution was needed.

Resized Recycled Bottled Water

Plastics recycling is one option, and it’s certainly helped eliminate waste – in 2013 alone, about 899,000 tons of bottles made from PET plastic were recycled into new products. But there’s another option that bypasses the disposal center altogether: filling reusable water bottles with tap water.

In theory, using refillable water bottles is an ideal way to cut down on plastic waste (and yes, promote your company). In practice, getting people to embrace tap water has proven challenging (and not just because giving tap water a literal hug is impossible). Even in 2015, news articles and studies have shown that people aren’t entirely willing to trade the disposable bottle for the long-lasting one.

Why is that? Is there a way to encourage people to use their reusables? Read on to find out what’s been going on lately with people’s perceptions of bottled water and what some organizations have been doing to encourage people to tap into tap water

Controversy Gets Unbottled

In July 2015, two news stories demonstrated just how much controversy surrounds bottled water.

Story 1: The Rothfus Amendment

The first story requires a little background. In 2011, the director of the U.S. National Park Service officially allowed individual park superintendents to ban the sale of bottled water in their parks. The measure was supposed to reduce the amount of plastic waste showing up in park rivers and other natural habitats. Fun fact: the policy actually was proposed by Xanterra, the company that provides Zion National Park with its snacks and drinks.

A water filling station at Zion National Park
A water filling station at Zion National Park

Since 2011, at least 18 national parks have stopped selling bottled water. Other bottled beverages are still sold, and visitors to the parks can still bring in their own bottled water.

Skip to 2015. In July, U.S. House Representative Keith Rothfus introduced an amendment to the House Interior Appropriations bill, H.R. 2822. The amendment would prevent the NPS director from approving any more bans on the sales of bottled water (and from using taxpayer money to clean up bottles in the parks).

“But why?” you might ask.

Well, that depends on where you stand. Some note that this move comes courtesy of lobbying efforts from the International Bottled Water Association, which represents companies that sell bottled water. The IBWA, meanwhile, maintains that prohibiting the sale of only bottled water and not other drinks is hypocritical and contradictory to the healthy lifestyle that the national parks are supposed to promote.

Story 2: The University of Vermont’s Bottled Water Ban

Around the same time in July, the American Journal of Public Health published a study from two researchers at the University of Vermont.

In the fall 2012 semester, UVM implemented a rule that said that 30 percent of the beverages sold on campus had to meet certain “healthy beverages” criteria. The following semester – spring 2013 – bottled water was banned from being sold on campus. Other bottled beverages were still available.

The two researchers tracked the number of bottled beverages shipped to UVM from spring 2012 (which served as the control in the experiment, for all you science buffs out there) through the end of spring 2013. What they found was that getting rid of bottled water actually had no effect on the number of plastic bottles thrown out on campus. The amount of plastic in the waste pile stayed the same.

Even worse? The study concluded that the number of sugary beverages that people bought on campus actually increased!

What’s the story with these two stories?

So opponents of bottled water bans suggest that the bans aren’t achieving the goals that they’re supposed to. People still can reach for less healthy beverage choices, and plastic bottles still can end up in landfills.

Some writers argue that banning bottled water deals with only one facet of a much larger problem. Others suggest that implementing a higher tax on bottled water sales is a better deterrent.

Some water fountains and filling stations are not located near dining areas
Some water fountains and filling stations are not located near dining areas

In both the case of the national parks and the case of UVM, however, there’s one particular key to success mentioned: in order to get people to use refillable bottles, people have to have access to water to fill their bottles.

It seems simple, but strategic placement is everything. The University of Vermont installed 75 water filling stations throughout campus as part of its program. However, as Richard Cate, UVM’s treasurer and vice president of finance, noted, because those filling stations were outside the dining halls, not next to the cases inside the cafeteria where the soda bottles were stored, the choice to drink tap water became less convenient than the choice to grab soda.

The national parks that have banned bottled water sales have considered placement when installing their hydration stations. Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has refilling stations near its lodges, main parking lot, general store, and the popular Sunset Point destination. Grand Canyon National Park has filling stations at plenty of places from visitor centers to popular trailheads, including the North Kaibab Trailhead, seen below:

Resized Grand Canyon Filling Station

The national parks claim success; officials at Zion National Park say that filling stations and reusable water bottles have helped keep 60,000 plastic bottles out of the junk pile.

But let’s say that you have no control over, you know, decisions on where to install taps and filling stations, but you still want to encourage people to go for reusable bottles. What can you do?


How to Sell People on Free Water (and Reusable Bottles)

1. Communicate

Perhaps the easiest thing that supporters of reusable water bottles can do is communicate. Let people know that there are refilling stations, as Grand Canyon National Park does on its webpage. Or do what Brit Kelleher, a UVM graduate, suggests: place signs and stickers near the soda that read, “Need water? It’s over there!” Or something like that.

There’s also always something to be said for showing, not telling. One thoughtful Google user made a map of free water fountains in Missoula, Montana, seen in the screen capture below:

Resized Missoula Water Fountains

A similar map for your city (perhaps paired with a water bottle giveaway) could be a useful resource for members of your community!

2. Provide the Bottles

Of course, even if people do have access to tap water or a filling station, they still need a container to store that wonderful clean water. And that’s where reusable bottles come into play.

One option is to sell water bottles, which makes financial sense. At Virginia Tech, students have the option of buying high-end reusable Camelbak water bottles imprinted with the school logo. The water bottles are sold at almost every dining facility on campus, making it convenient to grab water any time the students are ready to eat.

Sarah Kauss’s S’well bottles take the idea of sustainability and give it a sense of style. Kauss designed her insulated, BPA-free metal bottles with a different look from the plastic bottles you most often see in the gym or on the running trail. She intends her premium bottles to coordinate well with the kind of attire you’d most likely see a corporate executive wearing. How successful has Kauss’s approach been? Well, S’well bottles were an editors’ pick at Oprah’s O magazine, so… pretty successful.

But while everyone needs water, not everyone can afford a Camelbak or S’well bottle. Water bottle giveaways are a great option, as Joel Ott, winner of QLP’s Give Your Brand a Hand Giveaway in March 2015, demonstrated with the bottles he gave away at charity marathons.

Fletchergraphics Bottles

But water bottle giveaways that encourage a sense of doing good are even better.

The Join the Pipe project, which is associated with the Dutch water company Vitens, installs tap water filling stations in municipal locations and finances other clean water projects around the world. If that wasn’t enough, it also sells a BOGO water bottle: for every reusable bottle a person buys, the company gives a free one to a child in Africa. Clean water for everyone – that’s the goal!

3. Make It Social

Usually, we here at Quality Logo Products® frown upon peer pressure (hey, who’s laughing back there?). But we like the thought of getting people to go along with a helpful idea.

True2o is a company that sells bottled water right alongside soda in the refrigerated case. The bottles they sell it in, however, are reusable. And to encourage people to use those reusable bottles, they created apps for Facebook and mobile phones so that water fiends could keep track of how often they refill – and compare their refill rates with their friends. Filling a water bottle – who knew it could be a ~hot new trend~?

Fancy new startups aren’t the only organizations that can get in on the social action. A couple of years back, Pennsylvania American Water Co. held a photo-sharing contest on their Facebook page and Twitter account. The theme was simple: all users had to do was show photos of people enjoying their reusable water bottles. The first 500 people to post photos won a free water bottle, which they could keep for themselves or (assuming they already had their own, since they took a picture) share with others.

Bottled water bans are one way to address the issue of plastic bottle waste cluttering up our environment. And making reusable bottles easy to use is a way to make those bans successful. We’d say they’re a refreshing idea.

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