Water Bottles in Class Offer Varying Lessons in Sustainability

September 25, 2019

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Teaching sustainability in environmental journalism courses might just begin with encouraging students to consider the resources they use in class. Here, disposable plastic bottles dot tables in a Catawba College classroom in Salisbury, N.C., in 2009. Photo: Lead Beyond, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

EJ Academy: Water Bottles in Class Offer Varying Lessons in Sustainability

By Bob Wyss

In journalism classes around the country, especially environmental journalism courses, water bottles can offer far more than a refreshing beverage.

In some classrooms, only non-disposable bottles are permitted. In others, especially at universities where the public water quality is disturbingly poor, disposable bottles become a necessity.  

But in some, the lesson becomes less what the student has chosen and more an interesting reporting assignment.

It all comes down to how to teach sustainability in environmental journalism. Questions abound.  Should students be urged to buy electronic books over paper copies? Should instructors only distribute handouts and assignments electronically? And just what do we do about those pesky plastic water bottles?

Cynthia Barnett, who teaches environmental journalism at the University of Florida, initiated a discussion on this topic some time ago on the SEJ-EDU listserv. Believing it needed more attention, we asked several other journalism instructors to weigh in.


‘I see this as my obligation to create models

for how the students will go forward, 

no different from requiring diverse sources

and other ethical tenets of reporting.’ 

— Cynthia Barnett, University of Florida


Barnett distributes a sustainability policy in all of her classes, including environmental journalism. It does ask students not to bring disposable water bottles to class and to only buy the printed textbook if they were going to keep it beyond the semester. And the syllabus, distributed electronically, indicates that all work will be distributed the same way.

“I see this as my obligation to create models for how the students will go forward, no different from requiring diverse sources and other ethical tenets of reporting,” Barnett recently explained.  “It is also a good jumping-off point for conversation about issues such as single-use plastics.”


Reporting the plastic bottle issue

Other instructors contacted supported sustainability concepts but most not quite as sharply as Barnett.

Bernardo H. Motto, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, said he prefers to have his students use their journalistic skills to find out about plastic water bottles as opposed to “blindly” following a policy.

“I don’t like plastic bottles, but many times they are the only option for clean water,” said Motto of the questionable tap water in St. Petersburg. “I don’t think I can tell students who may have forgotten their reusable containers to remain thirsty for the duration of the class (often three hours), as many of the water fountains are not filtered.”

Mark Neuzil, a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., said students don’t like to get orders on issues such as water bottles. Still, added Neuzil, “It’s easy to ban water or soda in class because most of the classes are in a lab, with expensive equipment.”


Addressing consumption in the classroom

The issue clearly transcends water bottles.

“I think it’s an interesting question whether we explicitly address our own and our students’ consumption within the classroom setting, as opposed to teaching students how to report on society issues,” said Sara Shipley Hiles, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. “This mirrors the larger issue of whether environmental journalists should personally try to lower their carbon footprint.”

Motto pointed out that the issue about banning plastic straws is another example. “Many people living with disabilities need plastic straws to survive,” he said. “There are no easy alternatives that don’t add an unnecessary burden on their already over-burdened lives.”


‘My classes are almost entirely paperless.

This extends to the textbooks or readings.

... Turns out it’s not that hard.’

— Mark Neuzil, University of St. Thomas


Virtually everyone agreed that they try and make electronic textbooks available to students whenever possible and also strive to make handouts and written assignments electronically.  Over the years with the growth of online and digital options this has become increasingly possible.

“My classes are almost entirely paperless,” said Neuzil. “This extends to the textbooks or readings. I saw the value in ebooks when I taught in Prague at Charles University, where the faculty was highly encouraged to use ebooks. Turns out it’s not that hard.”

As someone who taught for many years, I also migrated to the paperless policy with one exception – the syllabus. Besides creating an electronic version that was always available to every student during the course of the semester, I would hand out a paper copy on the first day.  To me the syllabus was just too important a document; I needed my students to acknowledge that they had received it as opposed to trusting they would review the electronic version.

Obviously these issues extend well beyond environmental journalism.

Naima Montacer Hill, who teaches environmental biology at Mountain View College in Dallas, weighed in on the SEJ listserv discussion to say she tried to lead by example on the issue of sustainability by giving students tons of ideas.  

“It’s really fun because they start to catch on,” she said. “There are soooo many ways to be sustainable and it’s not about doing everything right but it’s about getting students to start to make changes that work for them.”

Bob Wyss is a retired journalism professor from the University of Connecticut and the author of the textbook “Covering the Environment: How Journalists Cover the Green Beat” (second edition and available as an ebook).

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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