JAMES CITY – Warhill High School students and faculty are doing their part to rehydrate without adding to landfills.
The school is the recipient of a grant from the organization Keep Virginia Beautiful that will allow it to finish retrofitting water fountains with sensor-operated bottle refill stations. Physics teacher Chris Becke applied for and received a $750 grant from the organization's "30 in 30" campaign, announced earlier this month. It's designed to reduce the number of disposable water bottles that are discarded at the school.
The grant is the second grant Becke has obtained for Warhill to support the initiative, which he dubbed "Refill Warhill." It all began with his own personal stance against the use of disposable plastic water bottles.
"One of the objections I have to single-use plastic water bottles is that you have a readily available resource that you can get right out of the fountains nearly for free, but some people choose to use these bottles and toss them out," said Becke, who added another reason to go reusable.
"If you take any single-use plastic water that you're going to drink, you need to imagine about a third to a quarter of that water bottle filled with oil. That is the energy equivalent of sourcing, processing, transporting and making the plastic water bottle. ... If you instead use a refill station, it's harmless because the marginal costs are basically zero."
Becke said each bottle refill unit costs about $375, and the installation is done in-house by a plumber employed by the Williamsburg-James City Schools. Grants will have covered three of the units, with the school division laying out funds for four, using leftover school improvement funds. There are seven water fountains in the school – including two in hallways near classrooms and lockers, one in the cafeteria and one near the main entrance. The latest grant enables the school to purchase the last two needed to complete the project.
Here's how they work: Each bottle refill unit has a sensor that detects when a bottle is placed underneath the spout. A strong stream of water fills the bottle in seconds. Each unit has a counter that tallies the number of times it has been used to refill the equivalent of a 12-ounce single-use bottle. In the Warhill cafeteria alone, that number is around 3,000.
Plus, Becke said, the refill stations are much more sanitary than a typical water fountain because you don't have to touch them in order to use them.
He said the administration hasn't done a full awareness campaign yet, but already students have begun reacting to them positively.
"I see them walking around with refillable water bottles. Even without promotion, I've noticed a big turn in attitude," Becke said.
The organization Ban the Bottle, which supports banning disposable plastic water bottles, has reported that the impact of using non-refillable water bottles is huge despite efforts to recycle them. Ban the Bottle cites research from another organization, the Container Recycling Institute, that showed the vast majority of those water bottles – about 86 percent – ends up in landfills. Ban the Bottle also reports there are chemicals in some plastics used to make the bottles, namely bisphenol-A, that are harmful to people and animals.
Warhill principal Jeff Carroll said the students feel reducing the school's "carbon footprint" – meaning the impact that people have on the environment – is important.
"Installing water bottle refill stations and promoting their use are small ways for Warhill High School to reduce its carbon footprint, and as we collect data about the bottle reduction, we hope these efforts inspire others to make this small change also," he said in an email to the Gazette.
It's also an exercise in building a sense of school spirit.
"In addition to the environmental benefits, the stations, most importantly, are daily reminders of how our students, teachers, administrators and division staff worked together to add value to the Warhill community," Carroll added.
Becke said by using the refill stations continually during their time at Warhill, students will get into the habit of carrying refillable water bottles. They'll have "awareness of the world around them, awareness of their actions when they use the single-use plastic water bottles."
"It's a lifetime education," he said.
Sampson can be reached at 757-345-2345.