BURLINGTON, Vt. — On the University of Vermont campus, where nature seems to beckon from everywhere, bottled water has been unceremoniously lumped with the likes of sugar-laced Twinkies.
It’s not that water is bad for us; it’s that water bottles, from manufacture to disposal, are bad for the environment, activists say.
Beginning Jan. 1, plain bottled water cannot be purchased or served on this 460-acre campus. Not in the dining halls, cafes, or vending machines. Not at sporting events. Not even at catered meals for visiting scholars.
UVM is the first public university in New England to enact such a ban. Students are quickly becoming better acquainted with the school’s 215 drinking fountains, where water from Lake Champlain is piped free to thirsty students and into personal, reusable bottles dangling from thousands of backpacks.
“I’m fine with it being totally banned,” said Jordan Hurley, 22, a senior from Billerica, Mass. “I just feel like it’s better for the Earth and for everyone. Why should they make water a commodity when it’s free?”
But not everyone on campus sees the ban of bottled water — and its petroleum-linked plastic containers — in overarching, save-the-planet terms.
Water, after all, is considered healthier than a soft drink. To Erica Spiegel, the university’s waste and recycling manager, “it’s less about banning this product and more about publicly available water supplies.”
All around this campus, the fifth-oldest in New England, a stream of students makes its way to metal oases that once were called bubblers but now bear the dry, bureaucratic label of “water bottle refill stations.”
Where students and faculty once needed to bend if they wanted a mouthful of tap water, they now can press thermos-size containers under a retrofitted, gooseneck spigot.
“Why are we trucking it in from somewhere else?” asked Gioia Thompson, director of the university’s Office of Sustainability. “There was just this feeling: Why are we doing this? It makes no sense.”
But even Thompson, whose job revolves around green issues, was puzzled when students took on bottled water about five years ago. “A key question was, why water and not everything else in plastic,” Thompson said. “You’re going to take away the healthiest option.”
The move to ban bottled water is growing nationally, propelled by concerns about the use of fossil fuels to manufacture and transport the plastic containers. About 20 American universities have total bans on bottled water, according to Food & Water Watch. In New England, Emerson College in Boston and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, have nearly eliminated bottled water from campus.
The Town of Concord, Mass., also prohibited its sale in what is believed to be a municipal first in the United States.
At the University of Vermont, students lobbied administrators but also had to work against the interests of Coca-Cola, which provided bottled water and other beverages to the 13,000-student campus.
“While we praise UVM’s efforts to make drinking water available throughout its campus, people should be able to make their own decisions about how they drink it: from a bottle of Dasani, a water fountain, or a refillable bottle,” David Larose, Vermont manager for Coca-Cola, wrote in a statement to the Globe.
Coke has provided bottled water under an exclusive, 10-year contract that ended in 2012. In exchange for “pouring rights,” Coca-Cola funneled $500,000 a year to the university for programs ranging from student aid to academics to athletics.
The company sold 362,088 bottles of Dasani water at UVM in 2007, according to university figures.
That water, according to the Dasani website, begins with local supplies that are then treated by “reverse osmosis” to remove impurities.
Coca-Cola executives stress that they are committed to the environment, and that Dasani’s bottles rely heavily on “plant-based materials.” In addition, they say, banning bottled water eliminates choice.
To student organizers, however, not all choices are equal.
“The university used to sell cigarettes. This is kind of like a similar thing,” said Shana McCann, 21, a senior from Weston, Conn., who is co- president of Vermont Students Toward Environmental Protection.
“It’s awesome to see students being excited about doing something this big,” she said.
To Emily Wurth, water program director at Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, the project makes sense.
“It’s part of their daily life,” Wurth said of the need to drink water. “As they’re starting to organize on issues, it’s an easy one because there’s an easy alternative” — the drinking fountains — “which not all issues have.”
Many students, however, were slow to buy in.
“There was resistance,” said Ilana Copel, 21, a senior from Yorktown, N.Y., and co- president of the environmental group. “I think a lot of it was people who didn’t quite understand what we were saying, especially with the Coca-Cola contract. They thought we were trying to ban Coca-Cola.”
Being inconvenienced also stoked skepticism among wary students: “What if I forget my water bottle? What if the water stations don’t work,” Copel recalled.
The answer involved plenty of one-on-one conversations on the campus, she said. One particularly fruitful day was spent lobbying a long queue of students at a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream giveaway.
“We walked up to everyone in line,” Copel said.
To bring added attention, a 10-foot-high arch composed of 2,000 empty water bottles, discarded bike inner tubes, cardboard, and chicken wire was built on campus.
The ban, however, comes with a cost.
Richard Cate, the university’s vice president of finance and administration, said UVM might receive $150,000 less this year under new, less restrictive contracts for food and beverages.
But a renegotiated deal with Coca-Cola, he said, also might have resulted in less money.
That figure is in addition to a $100,000 bill to upgrade water fountains and install water-distribution points, said Cate, who recommended the ban to the university president. Still, he said, the move has been worthwhile.
“I like to think of UVM as an environmentally conscious and proactive university,” said Cate, 63, a seventh-generation Vermonter. “If water had been in plastic bottles when I was in college, we would have been laughing.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@