The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

By Hannah Thomas

I’ve noticed daily as a Matthaei-Nichols visitor services intern that some of our visitors are confused by the absence of bottled water in the coolers. While both the gardens and arboretum offer water-bottle refilling stations and water fountains, people often come in looking for water they can buy. 

At both locations we’ve posted a notice explaining why we don’t sell bottled water. It reads in part: 

“We made a decision…to not sell water in disposable bottles here at the Arb & Gardens,” citing the fact that “the U.S. uses 2.5 million single-use water bottles every hour,” and “more than 80% of plastic water bottles end up in U.S. garbage dumps.” 

But the issue extends beyond the landfill to include destructive water extraction practices and the fact that bottled water is not necessarily safer or even much different than tap water.

Disposable Plastic

Although water bottles are recyclable, only a fraction of them make it to recycling facilities. In fact, according to CBS News, if you were to lay one year’s worth of discarded water bottles end to end, they would “circle the earth more than 600 times.” And considering that plastic bottles take around 450 years to biodegrade in a landfill (The Telegraph), bottled-water consumption has a massive and detrimental impact on our planet.           

Read a story in Columbia University’s Earth Institute about what happens to all that plastic.

Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

In addition to the issues with plastic, bottled-water brands often feature misleading labels to convince consumers that their product is somehow superior to plain tap water. These include descriptors such as “arctic spring” and “mountain water.” Yet, according to Food and Water Watch, 64% of bottled water comes from municipal tap water sources. The companies use claims to convince consumers that bottled water is more pure or safer than tap water, when in reality people could get the exact same water from their tap while spending much less.

This story on the commercial website details the pros and cons of bottled water.

Additionally, the study from Food and Water Watch states that “when bottlers are not selling municipal water, they are pumping and selling common water resources that belong to the public, harming the environment, and depleting community water supplies.” 

An example of this can be found right in Michigan, where Nestle has been approved to pump 576,000 gallons of water each day from the White Pine Springs well in the Great Lakes Basin, or 400 gallons of water per minute, according to a story that appeared on National Public Radio (NPR). This kind of water extraction can be devastating to surrounding species, rivers, and ecosystems.

For these reasons, Matthaei-Nichols promotes using refillable water bottles over disposable plastic ones. Refraining from selling bottled water is one way to do this. As an environmental nonprofit, participating in furthering an industry that has such a destructive impact on the earth is not in alignment with our mission. Instead, visitors are encouraged to bring their own water bottles to refill. Alternatively, refillable water bottles as well as other refreshments are available for purchase at both the gardens and arboretum.

Hannah Thomas is a rising senior at the University of Michigan from Lennon, Michigan. She is pursuing a major in philosophy and a minor in food and the environment. She is currently a visitor services intern for the summer and is responsible for staffing the visitor center at Nichols Arboretum. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, practicing yoga, painting, and spending time with friends.


CBS News


Food and Water Watch


Water bottles

Photo: Ted Mathys, 2009 Advocacy Project Fellow.


Bottled water better than tap? Not really.

Hannah Thomas
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