Help in a can, from Marquette to Flint

Brittany Blackburn

Pouring a glass of tap water when you’re thirsty is a simple task, almost automatic, reflexive; it takes very little forethought. In our community tucked away in the Upper Peninsula, fresh water is a commodity that we take for granted. We are surrounded by it.

But what if it were ripped away from us? What if you can’t just walk to the kitchen and drink fresh water straight from the tap? It’s not just a third-world concept that we learned about in grade school, something culturally-removed and distant. It’s just a stone’s throw away from here, in Flint, water

Flint has been the center of national attention in the past few months when late April 2014 the city switched their water source from treated Lake Huron water in Detroit to chloride-treated water taken from the Flint River. Issues with the new water supply went on for approximately 18 months until a Flint pediatrician observed highly elevated blood lead levels in many of his patients, the children of his city. It was discovered that due to the higher levels of chloride concentration in the river, the cast iron pipes tasked with carrying fresh water had been heavily corroded. The city was poisoning its citizens, and unfortunately those citizens had very few options. This water supply, obviously vital for everyday life, was now causing damage to whoever consumed it.

The city is currently working to replace the pipes and to rectify this crisis. However, the water is still plagued with higher-than-healthy levels of lead, and residents are in dire need of clean water to cook, drink and bathe with.

An NMU organization teamed up with a local brewery to can—that’s right, can—fresh drinking water to help provide for the citizens of Flint.

Students for Sustainability is an organization on campus that seeks to pursue and promote practices that properly source and conserve our natural resources. Each year the students plan a big project that encourages living green. Last year they established a permaculture garden on the college grounds; this year’s project would be sending clean water to the city of Flint.

They learned that so many people wanted to do the same, but had done so in the form of plastic bottles. Due to the overwhelming amounts of plastic in the city, recycling centers could not keep up, and many plastic bottles were making their way into landfills.

Hannah Poisson-Smith, president of the NMU Garden Club and member of Students for Sustainability, came up with the idea of sending aluminum cans filled with Lake Superior water.

“[We realized that] aluminum cans would be a more sustainable avenue than plastic bottles,”  Poisson-Smith said. At first it was just a pipe dream, but eventually things started to fall in place.

“I ran it by one of the owners of Blackrocks and we just talked it over with a couple of the brewers,” Poisson-Smith said. “They thought it was a great idea.”

Blackrocks Brewery generously donated 8,000 cans of water, and their labor, to the Students for Sustainability.

“The sustainability aspect has to be brought up again if you’re driving to do this in your car. Like, you’ve got six student cars going on the trip with a lot of weight in the cans of water. Where’s the sustainability in that?” Poisson-Smith said.

This point still left the students with the task of delivering the pallet of fresh water to the people of Flint.

Poisson-Smith decided to check with the local distribution companies. Griffin Beverage Company already delivers Blackrocks cans straight from Marquette to Flint, and Griffin graciously agreed to help with the cause.

“Not only did they say they’d do it, they didn’t even charge us anything,” Poisson-Smith said. “They’ll just load it on a delivery truck that has space for our water, and it’ll go down with all the rest of the Blackrocks beer shipment.”

The NMU Students for Sustainability aren’t the only ones keeping an eye out for their friends in Flint; Anheuser-Busch donated over 50,000 cans of water from their own coffers, proving that canned water, in this instance at least, is a charitable idea worth pushing on a big level. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo came together in a helping spirit and donated more than 176 truckloads of water in a group effort to lend their efforts to the cause.

The Students of Sustainability had very little time to fundraise for the labeling of their cans, so they decided to ask the university for their help. Almost immediately, NMU’s marketing department picked up the slack. They designed and paid for the labeling of all 8,000 cans.

“Our community thought this was a really good idea,” Poisson-Smith said, “and we all worked together to make the project a reality.”