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DEQ hopes Gresham pilot project spurs more use of refillable stations at Oregon schools

COURTESY OREGON DEQ - Gresham-Barlow students do a blind taste test comparing bottled water to tap water. Most couldnt tell the difference. A state-funded experiment at 10 Gresham schools found that students using new water-bottle filling stations poured the equivalent of several hundred thousand plastic water bottles' worth into their own reusable containers, in just five months.

Initially, the city of Gresham applied for an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality grant to fund water-bottle filling stations, to encourage students to opt for refillable water bottles instead of purchasing and consuming single-use plastic water bottles.

But DEQ officials wanted to use the project as an experiment, to study whether students at high schools and middle schools with ready access to water-bottle filling stations are more likely to use refillable water bottles than students without such access, said Elaine Blatt, a DEQ senior policy and program analyst.

"The real value in using reusable bottles is displacing the manufacturing of single-use bottles and their associated environmental impact," Blatt said.

In exchange for taking part in the pilot program from March through October, the DEQ paid for 17 new water-bottle filling stations at the schools, each with a price tag of $862. Seven of the schools are in the Gresham-Barlow School District and three are in the Centennial School District.

DEQ officials wanted data regarding student usage to encourage school districts across the state to install water-bottle filling stations, Blatt said.

Petroleum and other chemicals are used to make the plastic bottles, a process that also requires large amounts of water, energy and creates carbon emissions, said Jaylen Schmitt, a natural resource specialist with DEQ's Materials Management Program. Plastic water bottles also are routinely tossed as trash, winding up littering public parks, natural areas and the ocean.

Despite these environmental drawbacks, demand for bottled water keeps rising.

In 2015, bottled-water sales in the United States hit an all-time high, rising 7.9 percent over 2014, which saw a 7 percent increase over the prior year, according to National Geographic magazine.

Americans in 2015 bought the equivalent of 1.7 billion half-liter bottles of water every week. That's more than five bottles a week for every man, woman and child in the country. 

We also spend more per gallon for bottled water than for tap water.

As part of the nearly five-month pilot program, the 10 participating schools were divided into three groups: those receiving "water-wise" education about the environmental merits of refillable water bottles, those that got additional filling stations, and those that got both.

Students also took part in blind taste tests to see whether bottled water tasted different than tap water.

"Most couldn't tell the difference," Schmitt said.

Some students even agreed to sign a pledge to use refillable bottles.

Students at the three "education only" schools also learned about the bottled water industry. Their schools didn't receive additional filling stations until after the study was over.

Three other schools received extra filling stations and offered their students the same lessons regarding bottled water usage and the environmental effects of single-use bottles.

Four schools received additional filling stations but no education about the industry or environmental impacts.

Meanwhile, monitors on the new filling stations tracked each 20-ounce fill.

State officials are still analyzing data from the pilot project. A final report will be published by the end of the year on DEQ's website.

Blatt said the results could help encourage school districts throughout Oregon to install reusable water-bottle filling stations. Whether grant money will be available to help fund the stations has yet to be determined.

City officials in Gresham are just glad to have more tools to help students make greener choices.

"The installation of these water-bottle filling stations will benefit our schools and community for years to come," said Meghan Borato, Gresham's waste reduction specialist.

Preliminary DEQ findings

• At the 10 schools combined, students used water-bottle filling stations to drink the equivalent of 2,900 disposable bottles of water per school day.

• During the five-month pilot study, students used the filling stations to drink the equivalent of 330,000 single-use plastic water bottles. That would be 623,000 single-use bottles over a full school year.

• Laid side by side, those plastic bottles would span the distance from Gresham to Sandy and back.

• To produce and transport those 623,000 water bottles and manage the resulting waste would require 367 million BTUs of energy, the equivalent of 5,540 gallons of gasoline.

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