Quenching our thirst for change: transforming Komaba Campus into an oasis
Have you ever wondered where to refill your water bottle on campus? In Issue 10 of Komaba Times, I painted a pretty dismal picture of the state of water servers on Komaba I Campus, which stood firm with over 64 buildings but only 10 drinking water fountains1 for over 9 thousand students and staff members. Today, persistent student-led activism is changing this reality. Like a couple of recent triumphant campaigns such as the trimming of lesson times from 105 to 90 minutes and the provision of free period products in some washrooms on campus, a small group of students has managed to achieve what seemed impossible just a few years ago: 12 new water servers have been approved and installed on Komaba I Campus!
So, how did we get here? We must go back to 2021, when my team in "Phase I" of the university-wide Global Education for Innovation and Leadership (GEfIL) program began looking into the issue of plastic waste on University of Tokyo campuses. What we found with our primary research in Komaba was not surprising: student usage of water bottles was low, and awareness of refill locations was nearly non-existent. Our surveys revealed that many students were unsure about whether water from these refill locations was safe to consume. Respondents were also unsatisfied with the water's taste, and the unhygienic appearance of the servers themselves. Coupled with a pandemic that only amplified hygiene-related concerns, which led to shiyoukinshi ("Use Prohibited") signs being plastered on the few servers that did exist, what you’ve got is a perfect recipe for an exacerbated single-use culture on campus.
Targeting this issue, my GEfIL team proposed the idea of installing bottle-refill-type water servers on campus to reduce plastic waste. Our hypothesis was simple: encouraging students to use their own bottles through these servers could reduce plastic waste, and may be a gateway into the wider adoption of a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.
Incidentally, Akari Nomura from the Todai Sustainable Campus Project (TSCP) student committee also proposed the same idea, and Leah Han, part of the TSCP student committee and a teaching assistant in GEfIL, connected Daiki Yamaguchi from my GEfIL team and I with Akari. Members of the two environmental circles at the University of Tokyo, namely ECHO and Kankyo Sanshiro, also joined our small but burgeoning initiative, thus leading to the launch of “P0001 Water Server” as the pioneer project for the UTokyo Sustainable Network (UTSN).
To begin implementation, however, our newly formed team of students needed to gather more information. Who was or would be responsible for installing and maintaining the existing and new water servers on campus? We emailed anybody and everybody who seemed mildly related, yet to no avail — as it turns out, management of the servers did not quite fit into anyone’s job description. How do we obtain the statistics to make our proposal convincing? The Co-op store provided us with data on the sales of bottled beverages in 2019, and we continued by gathering student opinions and preferences on the project. We scavenged every floor of every building on campus to identify potential refill locations, and wrote a research-based 45-page proposal in Japanese. Unfortunately, the TSCP team, with its focus on greenhouse gas emissions reduction, decided not to fund us because the emission reduction impact of the project was not significant enough.
We then presented at student dialogues held by the various interrelated UTokyo initiatives, such as the Center for Global Commons and Race to Zero in 2021. An opportunity eventually arose to deliver a 4-minute pre-recorded presentation at the Future Society Initiative (FSI) Advisory Board meeting in November, where the President of UTokyo himself praised our project. Our spirits were at an all-time high after this meeting, yet no action followed from the university's side. So, we decided to change strategies and approached the Komaba Jichikai (Student Union) to request funds for a trial installation. However, the proposed trial exceeded the Jichikai’s budget, and so they were only able to appeal for it in the student negotiations agenda.
Almost a year later in October 2022, UTSN (somewhat miraculously) received an email from Professor Masahiro Sugiyama, who was an active member of Kankyo Sanshiro in his student days and has continued his related advocacies with the university ever since. He notified us that the university was moving forward with the project and the newly launched Green Transformations (GX) Student Initiative team would like to have an informal meeting with the UTSN water server team. Apparently, UTokyo Executive Vice President Tatsuya Okubo really pushed to realize this project. In this meeting with GX and administrative staff, held in November 2022, we discussed the list of potential water server installation locations. In January 2023, we met with Mr. Kazuyuki Akita from GX and a representative from a company called "Water Stand" to discuss the makeup and the UTSN-led design of the cabinet in which the new water servers would be placed. After what seemed to be glacial progress, finally, a dozen water servers were installed at locations 1 to 12 (see map) by mid-February 2023!
P0001 lent insight into the challenges of making concrete change within such a big institution. For one, it is still a mystery what happened behind closed doors in the decision to fund the project. This reflects broader issues like the lack of transparency and student inclusion in UTokyo’s decision-making processes – issues that UTSN has been highlighting since its establishment. Further, some things are simply out of our capacity to negotiate as students – we never advocated for the previous servers to be replaced, only for new bottle-refill spots to be installed in additional locations. Yet, the university was adamant about prohibiting the indoor drinking-type servers due to hygiene concerns and replaced all of them. So, if students find themselves thirsty and without a bottle, they now have to buy a beverage or go to the shokudo (cafeteria) or use outdoor water servers at locations 13 and 14 (see map).
I still ask myself: is this initiative the most sustainable solution? Water servers, after all, have their own carbon footprint. However, to compete with vending machines and konbinis (convenience stores), we need water servers that provide cold filtered water. Also, when it comes to technological fixes like this, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of assuming that complex problems can be solved by techno-scientific interventions alone. With this project, we are really trying to change the culture of superfluously buying sugary and caffeinated beverages in single-use plastics, which is detrimental to both human and environmental health. Some critical next steps include raising awareness about the locations of water servers, promoting the use of water bottles, and educating about plastic pollution. I look forward to finding out what methods will be most effective and discovering what it takes to spark behavioral change.
To ensure that the university will continue to fund the project and expand it to other UTokyo campuses, the impact of the servers must be monitored. This includes quantifying water consumption through the attached water meters, analyzing the change in beverage sales at the Co-op store and vending machines, and gathering student feedback. In my (somewhat controversial) opinion, once there are sufficient water servers across all campuses we could even nudge the university to reduce the number of beverage vending machines. Maybe then, everyone will be less tempted to buy into the lure created by the most polluting, unethical, and profitable corporations in the world such as Coca-Cola et al.
Today I urge you to join the reusable revolution (if you haven't already). Sip delicious water from your reusable bottle to reduce waste, save money, and improve your health! You probably already have water bottles neglected at home that you could befriend. Of course, if you don’t have one, please invest in a good quality bottle that suits your preferences for color, size, and material, and use it for as long as possible. A hot tip to make water taste even better is to clean your bottle regularly!
The time is ripe at UTokyo for change. Hope for campus sustainability is rising with the emergence of UTSN and the GX student initiative. But, there still is a lot to do, and we need a student team with the same recognition as Jichikai that is entirely dedicated to sustainability-related projects for the university to streamline the implementation of such initiatives.
I invite you to be a catalyst and take action for anything that you feel passionate about!
¹ While writing the article for Komaba Times Issue 10, I had initially only found 9 servers. It turns out there was actually one more—a discovery that affirmed just how tricky they are to find even for a water server enthusiast like myself.
Words cannot express my gratitude to UTSN members, especially, Leah Han, Akari Nomura, and Daiki Yamaguchi; and the professors and admin staff that contributed to the realization of this project. I am also grateful to Eriko Yamada for designing the fabulous water server map. Special thanks to Chris Clayton and the editors and designers of Komaba Times for bolstering the quality of this article.