Mercy to eliminate bottled water systemwide

September 15, 2018


During her service in the Dominican Republic, Sr. Claudia Ward, RSM, carried water from the river for daily use. She got used to bathing in the river and prayed in thanksgiving after an occasional cold shower.

Water bottle filling station
In advance of its upcoming ban on bottled water, Mercy is installing water bottle filling stations like this one in the Co-worker Fitness Center at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

She has been inspired by the members of her religious congregation in Central America and the Caribbean, "who remind us of the resources we take for granted." She has joined or prayed for other Sisters of Mercy, who have protested in Detroit over water cutoffs for delinquent utility payments, advocated for those harmed by the lead-tainted water system in Flint, Mich., stood in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and those affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline and accompanied indigenous people in Panama protesting construction of a hydroelectric dam.

But the time is now, she says, "to walk the talk right here" in the U.S.

As of Oct. 1, Mercy will eliminate bottled water at all facilities that it owns in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. This includes cafeterias, vending areas and gift shops. The system also will replace foam cups with paper cups and replace its supply of emergency water in plastic bottles with foil pack water.

Water Bottles
Physicians, nurses, staff and volunteers throughout Mercy will receive a thermal cup, which Mercy refers to as a vessel, to fill at drinking fountains upgraded with water bottle refilling stations. As of Oct. 1, Mercy will eliminate bottled water systemwide.

Water vessels
Chesterfield, Mo.-based Mercy is up-grading or replacing water fountains to include bottle refill stations. All staff members and volunteers — more than 40,000 systemwide — will be given a reusable, thermal bottle, which Mercy refers to as a vessel.

The vessel is a recurring systemwide theme. Mercy has installed vessel walls — illuminated niches filled with artistic clay pottery — in 17 of its facilities as a reminder of its mission of healing and service.

"I love that name because it connects us to Earth," said Sr. Ward, Mercy's clinical quality and patient safety lead. "Out of clay we were made, and the majority of us is water. We are fragile, and so is Earth."

Critical concerns and Laudato Sí
The campaign known as the Mercy Water Initiative FAQ grew in part out of the Sisters of Mercy's commitment to their Five Critical Concerns. First among them is Earth, attending to the issues of climate change, the human right to clean water and the dangers of extractive industries,
Sr. Ward said.

As part of the sisters' 2017 chapter gathering in Buffalo, N.Y., and in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to address climate change, Sr. Ward walked alongside other Mercy sisters in Walk for Water, advocating for clean water rights for all. Civic leaders and members of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation joined in the silent walk down the city's Main Street. Demonstrators held signs in English and Spanish that proclaimed "Water is Life" and "Mercy for Earth." The event garnered national media attention.

"It was awesome to see the solidarity among the people who joined us," Sr. Ward said. "We need to capitalize on our voice and publicly proclaim who we are and what we stand for."

Laudato Sí, Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, adds to the urgency of the Mercies' concern for Earth. "We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it," Pope Francis writes.

Multiple benefits
At a retreat that the Sisters of Mercy hosted in St. Louis to explore Laudato Sí, participants decided to approach Mercy Health Ministry, Mercy's public juridic person, about water usage issues, particularly the use of bottled water. Sr. Mary Judith Ann Carron, RSM, reached out to Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM, Mercy's health ministry liaison and a board member, about how to get the health system's facilities involved in an initiative that would dovetail with the order's water advocacy.

"We believe in the need to work toward the sustainability of life and support movements and legislation that secure the fundamental right to water for everyone, and that address climate change," Sr. Roch later said in a presentation to the board. "That leads us to examine our own behaviors and policies and to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices."

She persuaded the board that eliminating bottled water would be a good first step because it would reduce:

Sisters of Mercy at Walk for Water
Sr. Claudia Ward, RSM, center, joins her fellow Sisters of Mercy and others in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., for the Walk for Water, advocating clean water rights for all. The sisters organized the walk in June 2017 as part of their chapter meeting. Civic leaders and members of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation joined the silent procession along Main Street and the city’s waterfront. Photo courtesy of Sr. Claudia Ward, RSM
  • Environmental impact in production. Research reported by the Pacific Institute revealed that bottled water is almost 2,000 times more energy intensive to produce than tap water.
  • Plastic in landfills. A nonprofit group called Ban the Bottle reported that Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles in 2010 but recycled only 23 percent, which means 38 billion water bottles — more than $1 billion worth of plastic — were dumped into landfills. Mercy estimated that it sent about 491,000 plastic water bottles to landfills each year.
  • Costs. Mercy estimates that it will save $389,000 on buying and storing bottled water.

More to come
In addition to the drinking vessel, each physician, volunteer and staff member will receive educational materials on the Five Critical Concerns, Laudato Sí and stewardship of the Earth. Mercy also has prepared a Q&A for the people who staff its cafeterias and gift shops to respond to visitors who no longer will be able to buy bottled water.

Sr. Ward hopes that the initiative is one of many small steps at Mercy to reduce its carbon footprint. Other moves under consideration include reducing the use of plastics by switching to wooden coffee stirrers, paper straws and paper bags.

"But we'll take one step, and make one footprint, at a time," she said. "Hopefully, as we drink out of our vessels, we stop to think, 'What else can I do?' Hopefully, this small action speaks volumes, and we can be a public voice."



Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.