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Aug 032010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

What’s orange, clear and not very green?

The University of Texas’ at Austin’s newest brainchild – water in a plastic bottle that is a replica of the university’s iconic 307-foot-tall clock tower – is called H2Orange.

For the first time, the university has licensed the use of the tower for a consumable product.


The school says that about 40 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the 16.9-ounce bottles of “purified Texas water” will provide $1 million a year for scholarships, fellowships and internships. The venture was developed between UT and two university alums who are founding partners of Austin’s large GSD&M advertising firm – Tim McClure and Steve Gurasich.

(That’s the firm that developed the successful “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign).

H2Orange is a business venture, and the university is not spending any money on the product. Investors include high-profile UT graduates – pro golfer Ben Crenshaw, businessman (and owner of the occasional pro basketball or football team) Red McCombs and former UT football star James Street.

The move has raised the ire of green advocates, who say that the university should not be selling bottled water that will add to plastic bottles’ toll on the environment. Not only do plastic bottles not biodegrade (for at least 1,000 years), massive amounts of oil are used in the manufacture and transport of the products.

A few days after the mid-July announcement, a small protest on campus took the H2Orange makers to task for contributing to environmental problems. The head of an environmental group, Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the project is at odds with the City of Austin’s “Zero Waste Plan.” The city’s goal is to reduce the city’s waste by 90 percent in 2040.

The H2Orange bottle-makers responded, saying their bottles are made of 100 percent recyclable plastic and that they purchased carbon credits to offset the environmental impact of the bottles, plan to introduce a refillable stainless steel bottle next year, and are looking into the use of collapsible, reusable BPA-free bottles in the future.

The statement said that they intend to “reclaim every H2Orange bottle possible, recycle them and repurpose them into book bags, benches and other environmentally responsible products.”

The iconic University of Texas tower. Image: Graham Presntiss / Dreamstime

That’s laudable, but despite a push nationally for recycling, more than 80 percent of plastic bottles still end up in the trash, then in landfills or incinerators. Americans throw away about 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, according to the Clean Air Council. Making all those bottles to meet our demand uses more than 15 million barrels of oil a year, the Container Recycling Institute says. Another group, Food and Water Watch, says that’s more like 17.6 million barrels.

The new product comes at a time when many university campuses – including the University of Texas – are strengthening their sustainability efforts.  At least seven colleges or universities, including the University of Portland and Washington University in St. Louis, have completely banned bottled water, and nearly 30 more have aggressive reduction campaigns, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

“We’ve seen incredible growth in respect to sustainability and reducing waste on college campuses,” Paul Rowland, executive of the association, said. “We’ve seen our membership increase over the past five years from 40 to over 1,000 members, indicating some real interest in the higher education sector on sustainability.”

The group’s bulletin has more than 10,000 subscribers, he said.

The push isn’t just from students, Rowland said. It’s from all parts of the schools’ administration.

And banning the sale of plastic bottles on campuses? “That’s growing on an annual basis. In some cases it’s not a total ban,” he added, usually due to existing contracts with vendors.

“We totally knew and expected there would be people who would not be pleased about another plastic bottle,” Brenda Thompson, spokeswoman for H2Orange, said.

H2Orange’s marketing research found that “the vast majority of people who buy H2Orange are people who are going to buy bottled water anyway,” she said.

The bottles will likely be collectibles for some people, too, she said, and H2Orange will rely on social media to dream up ideas creative ways to reuse the tower-shaped bottles. The recycled tower-shaped bottles will take on new forms, such as book bags or benches, Thompson said.

Jim Walker says the University of Texas does lag behind many mostly smaller colleges on the recycling front, but so do most other large universities.

Recycling is just a part of Walker’s job as the university’s first director of sustainability.  He is pulling together and spreading the word about UT’s eco-friendly efforts. The goal: Make those green programs grow and start new ones.

“The student population these days have all grown up with recycling. Almost any community they come from has some recycling,” Walker said.

“We hear the students and they expect you to recycle and recycle right. We get that, and we’re moving in that direction.”

UT has big plans, he said. “We’ll be upgrading our interior and exterior recycling bins – giving them a consistent look, and (telling people) where those bins are. The division of housing and food services offers recycling in dorms – we have about 7,000 kids in dorms – they went tray-less, “ he said, adding that students in dorm dining halls can now separate food waste from other items to create compost. “We’ve created 3,300 cubic yards of food waste – that’s a lot of compostable food.”

Athletics is adding 75 more recycling bins at the massive Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the university even plans to spread the recycling effort into the blocks and blocks of tailgate parties nearby on football game days.

Expectations are high, he said. Recycling in particular can take more time to ramp up, because of budget cuts and the scope of changes required, Walker said. The entire campus community must be part of the conversation. Walker said he is looking for a culture change to “let the leaders of tomorrow help reshape sustainability issues on all fronts.”

“I like to call it a pursuit, not a checklist. It’s an ongoing conversation,” he said.

The water from H2Orange comes from Texas’ Choke Canyon Reservoir and Lake Corpus Christi, and will go on sale the first day of classes, Aug. 25, at $1.19 to $1.49 a bottle – initially in Austin, then to other major Texas cities. The water will also be marketed via social media and the Texas Exes alumni group, one report said.

The bottles won’t be sold at the football stadium, though – prior licensing contracts with other vendors will keep them out.

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