By YES! Coordinator Jim DeVries
The main question asked by everyone when they see a hydration station is ”why would you install that when you can purchase bottled water cheaply everywhere?” We wanted to answer that question this year during the YES! Winter Workshop for the Mesabi East High School YES! team. These students are working to install a hydration station at school and needed background information on the benefits to society and the environment. So off we went to learn the backstory of bottled water and hopefully understand in greater detail the benefits of a hydration station.
We started the day off with a “Trash Talk” presented by Moe Benda, Director of Iron Range Engineering at Mesabi Range College. During this engaging session we learned that each person produces an average of 4.3 pounds of trash on a daily basis. When you extrapolate that out, Americans produce billions of pounds of trash annually. But it’s ok because we just throw it “AWAY!” So where is “away?”
Landfills are the most common place for trash to end up, even though some of it doesn’t make it that far as it ends up in the woods, along the side of the road or in extreme cases some people just hang on to it. Landfills are amazing places constructed to protect the environment while providing us places to store our trash. They are designed to keep the “ooey gooey ooze” from seeping into the ground and contaminating the ground water. Once the landfill is “full” the top is covered with the same barrier that exists on the bottom, essentially making a “trash sandwich.” The science behind landfills is fascinating!
Next it was off to visit the water treatment facility for the city of Eveleth, MN. There we toured the plant and learned how water is continuously monitored to make sure it is safe for all 4,000 city residents they supply. There are several filters and chemical treatments necessary to ensure safety. It is required that the water is tested twice daily for the appropriate mix of chemicals, but too many chemicals can cause illness. For a city of 4,000 the facility needs to produce 100 gallons of water per capita per day. Not all of this water is for drinking, but much of it is used for sanitation purposes where it is recaptured and treated for release back into the environment.
During our visit to the water treatment facility we also got into a discussion about the tragedy happening in Flint, MI, and why that does not happen everywhere. One explanation that was shared with us was the lack of orthophosphate added to the water which is used to coat the pipes and prevent leaching of harmful chemicals into the water. There was also evidence that the chlorine levels may have been too high thus causing other issues with the drinking water. Needless to say the workers at the Eveleth Water Treatment Facility have been very diligent to make sure the chemical balance is correct. With bottled water it often is sourced from a city water supply and one hopes they are as diligent with their treatment as are the good folks in Eveleth.
We ended the day touring the recycling facility in Virginia. Here they sort out all the recyclables that have been collected from the roughly 4,000 square miles of the northern half of the county. Estimates are that county residents recycle approximately 40% of the trash annually, which is a high number compared to other regions of our country. All the recyclables are sorted, baled and sold to re-purposing facilities where it is made into another useable product. Now that is all good, however; in the US we consume approximately 50 billion water bottles annually. Of those, 80% end up in a landfill. Concentrated efforts towards recycling have been in effect since the early 1970’s and we still are only recycling 20%. Add to this the price of oil dropping to less than $20 a barrel, making the market for recycled plastic less desirable. What can be done? The answer is simply stated in the 3R’s of environmental stewardship, REDUCE the amount we consume as a society.
The Mesabi East YES! team sees this vision and they are making steps towards reducing the number of plastic water bottles consumed in their school each day. With one hydration station they will reduce thousands of plastic bottles from the waste stream, plus they know that the water they are drinking has gone through the diligent testing provided by their city government. From a climate change perspective, the less we rely on plastics and transportation to provide us with our everyday needs, the less carbon dioxide we add to atmosphere. The hydration station will be a welcome addition to the school and will help to reduce the amount of trash thrown “away” each day as well as reduce their dependence on oil for the plastics and transportation needs of bottled water. Simple actions taking on big a problem that is what YES! is all about.