Sipping Sustainably: Green Fund Project Brings Hydration Stations to Campus

Sam Grindel, Marcella Otter (Physical Plant), and Breana Nehls pose by one of the new hydration stations.
Sam Grindel (undergraduate student), Marcella Otter (Physical Plant), and Breana Nehls (Housing) pose by one of the new hydration stations. Photo by Trina La Susa.

Reusable water bottles are more and more visible on the UW-Madison campus. They peek out from backpacks and balance on Terrace tables. They bear scrapes, scuffs, and stickers from all over the world. And with the proliferation of upgraded water fountains in university buildings, it’s easier than ever to refill one’s bottle with cold, filtered water. Simply put, Badgers are sipping more sustainably.

And yet, campus events and gatherings that are held outdoors often require organizers to provide bottled water to keep participants happily hydrated. Despite the university’s admirable recycling programs, that means more plastic produced and, ultimately, imposed on our flagging global recycling market.

Sam Grindel is a senior double majoring in environmental studies and biochemistry with a minor in computer science. His special interest in the riddle of “sustainable swag,” such as reusable bottles, led him to apply for a grant from the Office of Sustainability Green Fund in partnership with Breana Nehls, who is sustainability coordinator for University Housing. Taking a cue from the City of Madison, which operates a water wagon that Housing has used for events in the past, Grindel proposed that similar “hydration stations” could be used by campus units for outdoor events to limit the need for disposable plastic water bottles.

Housing's specially branded reusable water bottle.
Housing’s special, branded reusable water bottle.

Grindel’s successful application resulted in a $15,000 award from the Green Fund for the purchase of three hydration stations. “We were excited to work with Sam because his application built from his existing research into the impact of reusable water bottles versus disposables” said Green Fund Program Manager, Ian Aley.

University Housing provides incoming Housing residents with a high-quality, branded, reusable bottle. Grindel found that manufacturing and distributing each bottle from Housing requires 800 grams CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), compared to just 280 grams CO2e for a conventional, disposable plastic bottle. But the upshot is very positive: if a student uses the refillable bottle just three times, it becomes the more sustainable option.

The key, however, is to make refilling a reusable bottle as easy as possible—even at events that are distant from conventional water fountains. Enter the hydration stations.

The three new hydration stations made their first splash last month as Housing residents moved in to residence halls. Based on the approximately 757 disposable water bottles that Housing did not have to buy for Move-In, they also saved:

  • 9.8 kg of plastic
  • 3.8 trash cans worth of space

    Housing students moving in stream by a hydration station sign. Photo by Trina La Susa.
    Housing students participating in Move-In stream by a hydration station sign. Photo by Trina La Susa.
  • 151 kg CO2e, which is equivalent to driving from Madison to Chicago in an average car (168.2 miles)

“Housing eagerly participated in this Green Fund project to offer residents and their families a less wasteful way to stay hydrated during Move In,” related Breana Nehls. “In a larger sense, we see these hydration stations as a way to cultivate a reusable lifestyle and to discourage throw-away culture. Housing’s goal is to make living sustainably as accessible as possible for our residents: we want to give our residents the tools to become sustainability leaders.”

In addition, University Housing—which, as part of the agreement with the Green Fund, owns the three hydration stations—now has a system that they can loan out to other departments on campus for use at outdoor events. And that means that more plastic will be avoided and more people will experience the benefits of cross-campus partnerships in the service of sustainability.

Want to learn more about the Green Fund? Come to the UW Green Fund Information Session on Friday, September 21, 1:00 – 2:30pm,  at Memorial Union (check TITU). You can also visit or email with any questions.

Thirsty for a sight of the hydration stations? Come to Sustain-a-bash on Friday, September 28 from 12 – 3pm on the Gordon lawn for free prizes, fun, and bike-powered milkshakes!


By: Nathan Jandl