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Experimental College class examines use of plastic bottles

Published: Thursday, November 4, 2010

Updated: Thursday, November 4, 2010 17:11

Hodgon water bottles

Lane Florsheim / Tufts Daily

A wall of water in disposable plastic bottles awaits Hodgdon customers. Environmental Action class members are trying to encourage the use of reusable bottles instead.

Environmental Action: Shifting from Saying to Doing, the Experimental College course that brought trayless dining and double−sided printing to Tufts, is now taking aim at plastic water bottles on campus.

Students in the class decided to focus on reducing plastic bottle usage after weighing other possible goals earlier in the semester. The campaign targets water bottle usage by Tufts undergraduates, according to sophomore Kaiying Lau, a member of the class.

"They're the ones who buy the majority of the plastic water bottles," Lau said.

Office of Sustainability Program Director Tina Woolston has taught the course, now in its third semester, since its inception. She said an integral part of the class is a social marketing campaign that allows students to put into practice various techniques that they have learned throughout the semester.

"To me, it's not that important what the project is," Woolston, who is one of the course's teachers along with Negin Toosi, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology, said. "The point is the learning experience."

"We weighed [potential goals] in terms of how easy they would be able to be achieved and the environmental impact that they would have," freshman Fiona Weeks, a member of the class, said. "We decided that [getting rid of] plastic bottled water has a fairly high environmental impact over time, and it was a fairly reasonable goal to achieve."

After settling on the campaign's focus, students conducted initial research to select the most effective mediums to broadcast their message.

Students created a survey on Facebook, researched similar campaigns on other college campuses and contacted Tufts administrators to determine the feasibility of reducing or removing plastic bottles.

They also conducted random interviews with members of the Tufts community, according to Lau. There were two rounds of student interviews: one targeting those seen using plastic water bottles and another for those seen using reusable bottles, Weeks explained.

"One of the things we found in the online survey was that a lot of people had reusable water bottles, they just weren't using them regularly," Weeks said. "We wanted to find out why."

Woolston explained that the goal of data gathering was to identify hindrances to sustainable behavior.

"You're looking at what are the barriers to behavior change," Woolston said. "For example, in a lot of universities, they will give out ... reusable water bottles as an incentive to have people use tap water. But what the class found through their survey is like 90 percent of the people already had a reusable water bottle, so that wasn't the barrier."

Interview results demonstrated that convenience was a major consideration in the decision to use plastic bottles, which led the class to consider alternative ways to provoke behavioral change.

"People mostly thought about convenience," Weeks said. "They perceive plastic water bottles to be more convenient."

Hodgdon Good−to−Go, which sells bottled water, has become a focal point of the campaign. The class is focusing on the "trick−turning" of water in Hodgdon, according to Weeks.

"Trick−turning" is enabled by a flaw in the Dining Services' register system that fails to detect whether students on unlimited meal plans have used already used a meal during a particular dining period. The result is that students can eat in an on−campus dining hall and go to Hodgdon within the same meal period and only be charged once, allowing students to buy groceries, including bottled water.

"Hodgdon is a main focus because that is the source of people's water bottles, but the behaviors that lead to people trick−turning water bottles also happen outside of Hodgdon," Weeks said. "People forget their reusable water bottle, so they're more likely to trick−turn."

Students are currently in the process of executing their projects, according to Woolston. "They're in the last phase — they implement the campaign and reflect on progress," she said.

Students are currently working in groups to plan events or create visual reminders to reduce plastic water bottle usage, according to Woolston. There is no definitive date by which the campaign must be visible on campus; however, those involved expect projects to be completed in the coming weeks.

"There's a group that's creating a little video, so that should be neat. There's a group that's trying to talk to [Dining Services] to find out whether there's any sort of structural changes that can be made in ... Hodgdon," Woolston said. "There's some folks working on signs, like prompts, so people can put prompts on their door [or at the water cooler], so they remember to bring their water bottle."

According to Kai, her group is planning a water taste test comparing bottled and tap water. Weeks' group is planning a movie night to screen a documentary about bottled water.

The bottled water issue has been taken up by students outside the class, as well. Tufts Community Union Senate Trustee Representative Alice Pang has been working since last year to install hydration stations — which allow for the easy refilling of water bottles — across campus. A pilot station, funded by Dining Services, will be put in place in the Mayer Campus Center this winter, according to Pang, a sophomore.

Pang supports the efforts of students in the course and sees the hydration station as a continuation of the goals of the class.

"I think [the campaign is] awesome, and I think the implementation of the hydration station is a great continuation of what they're doing because their class only lasts this semester, so once they get back, and they've done all their work it'll continue on," Pang said.

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