Students at Leeds University have been forced to make some tough democratic choices this year. In their bi-annual referendum, they are typically faced with divisive decisions: should students support Palestinian refugees' right of return? Should they oppose the introduction of ID cards? Should Abba be the Union's official band...?
The decision, interestingly, that has generated a great deal of controversy was the most overwhelmingly unanimous: should Leeds University Union (LUU) ban the sale of still bottled water?
The answer, of course, was, 'Yes!' Bottled water had long been LUU's top-selling product, but now a record number of students were voting to clear the shelves of the stuff.
They demanded instead that the Union make it possible for them to access water for free. In doing so, LUU was forced to make a £32,000 sacrifice - money that had helped pay for the smooth running of the not-for-profit organisation.
The ban sparked a fierce debate. Some people applauded what they saw as a positive decision, putting sustainability before profit. Others were anxious that 'freedom of choice' had ultimately been compromised.
Bottled water companies were certainly threatened by the decision. The Natural Hydration Council, founded in 2008 to defend the interests of leading names in the UK bottled water industry - Danone, Nestlé and Highland Spring, said:
'It seems a shame for a university Union, whose principles are founded on the right to choose, to take away student choice by removing bottled water from the Union.'
The ban at LUU is set to come into force in March 2010. But, the Union is already ahead of itself; within months, they had installed two free water coolers in convenient places in the Union building - and reusable water bottles are flying off the shelves.
Students at Leeds are, finally, turning their backs on something they can get for free out of a tap. 'It's great,' says third-year student, Guy Mitchell, 21. 'This vote shows that we're taking a stand against the big issues affecting the world today - climate change and scarce water resources. Hopefully other Unions will follow suit.'
Despite rumblings of interest, no other university Unions in the UK are making serious moves to ban the bottle. Two of the most prominent arguments against it are; 1) that a Union can't afford to lose the revenue generated by bottled water, and 2) in echoes of the Milton Friedman school of free market democracy, removing a product negates a student's most treasured right - 'freedom of choice'.
But banning bottled water makes a lot of sense. For a start, it's better for the environment. In their decision to stop selling bottled water, LUU will not sell the 180,698 bottles of still water that it sold in the academic year 2007/8.
As a direct consequence, there will be 146,365 fewer plastic bottles in landfill sites (based on the British Plastics Federation's estimate that 81% of plastic is not recycled).
There will be 632,443 litres of water saved (based on Pacific Institute's estimate that it takes three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water). And 22,587 litres of oil won't be used to make new plastic bottles (based on Pacific's Institute's estimate that for every bottle of water produced, enough oil is used to fill a quarter of the bottle).
These are significant savings for a world threatened by the impact of excessive and needless production.
And it's better for the student body, who, whilst battling against ever inflating course fees, are now able to get an essential natural resource for free. Some students, however, feel this removes their right to choose whether or not to hand over cash for a chilled bottle of Evian from within their Union building.
Freedom of choice
One student, for example, faced with the prospect of a bottled water ban at Reading University Union, wrote on a social networking site: 'It seems [...] overly zealous to arbitrarily ban the selling of bottled water to Union members in their shop.'
And another: 'By removing bottled water you will be (in essence) removing our freedom to choose to what we please.' But in fact, students are now presented with even greater choice. Providing water receptacles and free chilled water in convenient locations - alongside the option to buy bottled water elsewhere - is far more of a choice than that between one water company or another.
Reusable bottles hadn't been on sale before at LUU. Now, the main Union shop, Essentials, stocks high-quality, low-cost plastic bottles made in the UK; the cheapest costs £1.50 (500ml), and £1.75 (750ml). Initially, 200 reusable bottles were ordered.
The retail manager, Kevin Hogarth, expected to sell around 50 a week. Within three days, every single bottle had been sold. Hogarth ordered an additional 2,000 bottles, which also sold out within weeks. At this point, bottled water was still available to purchase.
LUU is one of the largest student Unions in the country, with over 30,000 students - and all of them were presented with the democratic option of voting. More than 4,000 voted on the bottled water motion - that's 13 per cent of the student body. It may seem that the minority has decided for the majority, but every student was given the option to vote and, in terms of student democracy, it was the largest and most unanimous vote ever cast.
It doesn't have to be a bad financial decision for the student Unions. Of course, banning the sale of a product reduces sales. In the case of bottled water at LUU, the loss was dramatic. During the academic year 2007/08, LUU sold 180,698 bottles of still water - it was the top-selling product. Without those sales, the Union forfeits an annual sum of £32,940.
But Kevin Hogarth is confident he will be able to offset the loss of bottled water revenue. Selling a wide range of reusable water bottles, for example, has proved very successful. Alongside cheaper bottles, is the Hydropal, with an inbuilt filtration system, costing £7.99. The filters need to be replaced every six months, so the bottle will cost you around £12 in the first year, which is the equivalent to, perhaps, 12 bottles of still water.
Hogarth is also finding other ways to encourage sales, including offering a better price on sparkling water, which was, until recently, priced higher than still. And where still water was a popular choice with Meal Deals, students are simply swapping their choice to other healthy options, so money isn't necessarily going elsewhere.
It's anticipated LUU will sell 10,000 reusable bottles in the coming year, generating around £6,000 profit. That amount represents one-fifth of the sales once generated by bottled water. Hogarth says other Unions shouldn't 'have a head in the sand' approach.
He acknowledges that students need to hydrate, but thinks being able to get still water for free is a smart decision. He may have felt intimidated when the news came in that the shop's top-selling product was going to be cleared from the shelves. But he never doubted he'd be able to make some smart decisions to recoup the lost revenue.
Commercially, it forces businesses like his to be creative. 'We have to engage more with students, listen to them and introduce alternative products to generate the income.'
The ban at Leeds University Union proves bottled water is a thing of the past. It paints a vivid picture of success and exposes the weaknesses in the arguments against banning bottled water. It's a decision that demands to be emulated - so don't bottle it.
Sophie Haydock is a freelance journalist