Photo from Silhouette Photo Archives, Graphics by Sukaina Imam
On Jan. 30, 2017, the McMaster Students Union announced plans to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles from Union Market as part of a strategy to work towards a more sustainable campus.
However in the fall of 2017, the newly elected board of directors decided to return single use bottled water to Union Market. Soon afterwards, boxed water was pulled from shelves.
Proponents of the boxed water project say that it was the first step of a plan to work towards sustainability on campus. According to others, the project was doomed from the beginning.
WHY BOXED WATER?
Former MSU president Justin Monaco-Barnes introduced boxed water as a more environmentally friendly alternative to bottled water. Monaco-Barnes was elected on a platform of sustainability, and had included the implementation of boxed water in his campaign.
Boxed water cartons are recyclable and made from well-managed forests. Furthermore, less energy is required to ship, produce and package boxed water bottles.
Prior to making the decision to phase out single use plastic water bottles, the MSU Advocacy team, led by Blake Oliver, had compiled a research report considering the sustainability, marketability, and financial considerations of implementing boxed water.
According to Monaco-Barnes, boxed water was meant to be the first step in a long-term plan to push the university to eliminate single use plastic water bottles altogether. By taking a moral stance against single use plastic water bottles, the board of directors hoped to encourage the rest of the university to follow suit.
Monaco-Barnes stated the next step in the project would have been to implement a water bottle filling station at Union Market complete with options for adding flavour and carbonation.
“By selling plastic water bottles again and undoing this ban, the MSU has effectively undone not only the work that was put into this effort, but has also undone the planned multi-staged process by removing the underlying principle,” stated Monaco-Barnes in a letter responding to the decision.
WHY BOTTLED WATER?
According to Jeffrey Campana, the current Union Market manager, the main issue with boxed water was the financial losses. Bottled water had been one of Union Market’s top selling items, and the switch to boxed water led to revenue losses resulting from both a lack of student interest and a lower profit margin on boxed water.
Campana was a cashier at the time that boxed water was introduced. He stated that the lack of interest in boxed water was a result of a higher cost, reluctance to purchase an unfamiliar product and an ineffective advertising campaign.
Boxed water was more expensive than the least expensive bottled water. For example, Eska was sold for $1.13 for a 500 mL bottle, while a box of water the same size cost $2.49.
Additionally, Campana noted that students were hesitant to purchase boxed water due to its unusual design. Since there were other places on campus that continued to sell bottled water, consumers were not forced to make the switch to boxed water.
Campana also stated that students were not effectively incentivized to purchase boxed water. In early January the MSU produced posters and infographics giving information about the environmental impact of bottled water. The graphics were displayed in Union Market.
However, according to both Campana and the 2016-2017 Union Market manager, a more robust and long term marketing campaign might have made boxed water sell more successfully.
The previous Union Market manager stated that she had not been properly consulted when deciding to phase out bottled water and market boxed water. The decision to transition to boxed water came as a directive from the board of directors instead of being a result of collaboration with Union Market Management.
Generally, the part time manager of Union Market is responsible for deciding what items to stock. However, since Union Market is owned and operated by the MSU, the students union president and board of directors can make decisions about what is sold.
If she had been consulted, the previous Union Market manager stated that she would have worked towards a long term advertising plan in preparation for the introduction of boxed water.
“I don’t think it would have had the same results had I been a part of it like effectively,” she stated.
In addition to being more expensive for consumers, boxed was also more expensive to produce. This meant that Union Market made less money off of each unit of boxed water sold than what they made off of bottled water.
“I think it’s a great product, I just would never sell it. Simply because I don’t make money off of it, the MSU doesn’t make money off it,” said Campana.
For Monaco-Barnes however, the overall purpose of the campaign was not to sell more boxed water. Ideally, students would switch to reusable water bottles and would therefore stop buying water from Union Market altogether.
Monaco-Barnes had anticipated that a revenue loss was likely to occur. However from his perspective, the environmental considerations outweighed the financial losses.
“Because it’s such an important cause, becoming more sustainable and reducing carbon footprint, I think it’s okay if it’s going to take a bit of a financial hit,” said Monaco-Barnes. “That’s the crux with sustainability […] if it was an easy, cheap, simple solution, everyone would be doing it,” he added.
To help offset some of the financial losses from the removal of bottled water, the board of directors decided to raise the costs of other best-selling items at Union Market such as chocolate milk. In 2017, the price of chocolate milk increased from $1.86 to $2.25.
According to MSU General Manager John McGowan, prices were raised so that Union Market could continue to financially support its cost centres. However, they not raised to the point of recoupling the lost revenue from bottled water, as this would have made prices unaffordable.
According to the Union Market manager at the time, however, this price increase was not enough to make up the losses from bottled water sales.
Bottled water has since been reintroduced, meaning that Union Market is no longer facing revenue losses resulting from its absence. However, the price of chocolate milk has not been brought back down, despite being raised to help compensate the loss of bottled water.
Campana noted that the price of chocolate milk may still have increased due to inflation.
“$1.86 is miles away from being financially sound in 2019,” stated Campana.
SEEING PLANS TO FRUITION
Monaco-Barnes noted that the structure of the MSU makes continuity difficult. Due to the high rate of turnover in student government, long-term projects often do not get seen to completion.
While the overall project was ambitious, the implementation gap and lack of year to year continuity meant that the boxed water plan was short-lived.