Sewanee water campaign makes great strides

Students at the Tuesday Toast

Photo by Kimberly Williams

By Lam Ho
Executive Editor

The Sewanee Water campaign (once known as the Think Outside the Bottle campaign), a student initiative to promote the banning of plastic water bottles on campus, was recognized on Tuesday, September 15, at 5 p.m. in the Wick living room. Zack Loehle (C’17) set up a presentation to describe his experience continuing April Shi’s (C’14) legacy in developing policy changes and interacting with the administration to alter the campus’ attitude toward bottled water.

Last spring, The Sewanee Water campaign celebrated the administrative review of the club’s petition to stop the use of bottled water on Raised in Decatur, Georgia, Loehle felt connected with water rights during his childhood. From playing in the local creek to rejecting the notion that bottled water is safer than tap water, Loehle always believed in what he calls the “social contract” pertaining to “how we use our resources and the ability, regardless of a person’s point in life, to have access to these essential resources.” Although his connection to the Sewanee Water campaign seems predominantly policy-based, his attachment to the cause runs deeper. It combines his passion for aquatic biodiversity and social justice to revolutionize the way Sewanee understands its water use and plastic.

The organization’s goal has two main points: to discontinue the sale and use of pre-packaged water and to make public water more accessible and of higher quality. In a way, Loehle and the members of the Sewanee Water Campaign have already accomplished a bit of each goal: the proposed policy would phase out bottled water presence on campus, a process projected to take three years. The Sustainability Office has begun getting in touch with a number of departments and Sewanee affiliates to make the policy known; and filtered water bottle fountains with automatic sensors have been installed in various locations across campus thanks to Physical Plant Services.

Rachel Petropoulos, coordinator of SEI Pre-college Field Studies Experience since 2009, first met Zack as a high school student when he attended the program in the summer of 2012. “Zack’s commitment to issues surrounding the environment was so evident and was coupled with humbleness, knowledge, enthusiasm and the desire to bring others together to engage in conversation and increased understanding. And those attributes have bloomed in his college career. With different avenues open to him, he still very much wants the conversation to move from passion to action.”

During his presentation at the Tuesday Toast, Loehle demonstrated an intimate knowledge of water rights both regionally and internationally. He pointed to the tri-state water war between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida as a result of Atlanta’s population boom, which demanded more water than Georgia was capable of providing. He also discussed the patches of marine debris made of broken down plastic particles, which are eaten by microorganisms, sending toxins through the ecosystem and up the food chain. As such, the Sewanee Water Campaign defines a movement in Sewanee that expands beyond the Plateau and to an international initiative to make sustainability a priority.

At the Wick, the crowd was full of questions regarding the nature of Sewanee’s transition to a bottled-water-free zone. Caroline Holmes (C’17) asked, “How will the Sewanee Water campaign change the way sports teams hydrate?” In reply, Loehle explained that transitioning from bringing a pack of bottled water to filling up large coolers would be the most practical solution, though this means the organization will have to interact with departments to provide options and advice on the use of pre-packaged water bottles.

He explained, “The sustainability office is going back and asking, ‘How do we make sure every department is okay with [banning bottled water on campus] before making the official announcement?” Ultimately, he explained his success would have been impossible without the team behind the Sewanee Water Campaign, including the current members and former members Noni Hill (C’16) and Maddy Rollings (C’16).

Loehle recognized the importance of advice and guidance during his growth as a leader, including workshops and tips taught through David Evans’ (C’15) work with SEEL, Sewanee Student Engagement, Empowerment, and Leadership program.

By now, Loehle has played a role on campus in a number of departments and organizations; on top of his commitment to the Sewanee Water campaign, he is an ecology and biodiversity major, former Green House resident, current Writing House co-director, and student leader.

Petropoulos said, “I hope encouragement from faculty, staff, and fellow students and opportunities in and out of the classroom have given Zack a toolkit that will serve him well in the future. Sewanee is currently the recipient of his efforts and we are fortunate to have his voice on campus. He joins the legacy of student environmental activists who came before him.”