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Bottled Water Reality Check

March 27, 2008
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Critics of the bottled water industry often claim “tap water is just as good” as bottled water and, since there is no difference between the two, the packaging and transportation of bottled water is a terrible waste of non -renewable resources. This has been painful for the people in the bottled water industry to hear because we supply a high quality, healthy, good tasting beverage to consumers who are often faced with a lot of unhealthy beverage alternatives. Heck, we thought we were the good guys!

These attacks on bottled water may be a “tipping point” for the bottled water industry. Do we continue to grow and be a major player in the overall beverage market or do consumers reject bottled water because they have come to believe tap water is a suitable alternative?

Unfortunately, during this crucial time in the history of the bottled water business, I believe the industry faces a major stumbling block in confronting bottled water critics. While we would love to engage in a conversation with consumers about the quality of our product versus what we consider a lightly regulated public commodity varying a lot in taste and quality, our valid discussion points get trumped by the absolutely accurate claims of our critics about our waste of resources. Not in the transportation of our product so much – all food and beverage products have to be transported from the source to the table – but in the packaging. The recycling rate for PET, the primary resin used in bottled water packaging, was only 23% in 2006. Our positive positioning against unhealthy beverages, our vital role in disaster relief, and the other positives things individual water companies accomplish in their communities gets lost or obscured in consumer’s minds because the critics have a valid argument on this one point.

And it is really kind of dumb for us to waste PET because it is useful stuff. Asians purchase about 40% of the PET we do pick up, ship it to their countries, and turn it into clothing fiber. In Australia, a steel company burns PET in partial replacement of coke in order to reduce their carbon emissions. U.S. companies are turning plastic waste into carpet, backpacks, building products or even back into beverage containers. Coca -Cola and other companies are currently building capacity to return scrap PET to food grade resin.

Water companies can blame American consumers and our “throw away society” for all this waste but that attitude is not going to save us from the righteous wrath of our consumers when they decide enough is enough. It simply defies American common sense to throw away useful stuff. Our industry needs to get out front with a real solution to recycling or face a troubled future.

All beverage companies have traditionally supported “voluntary” curbside recycling and many companies have spent some time and financial resources promoting various municipal schemes. But we know now with some certainty, after several decades and lots of money and effort, “voluntary” recycling simply doesn’t work. Our use of packaging continues to increase and recycling rates remain stubbornly low. One reason for our lack of recycling success is our equipment and resin suppliers have become really good at reducing the cost of each individual package so it really doesn’t make economic sense for the individual to pick a water bottle up out of the ditch. It only really costs us as a society when you lump all the packages together, send them to the landfill, and replace them with more non -renewable raw materials. Food and beverage packaging resin use in 2008 is estimated to be 13.6 billion pounds and only about a quarter of that will be recycled.

Some beverage companies are trying to avoid legislated mandatory recycling schemes by promoting “sustainability” practices. They are becoming more efficient in production, using less energy and reducing their use of all types of materials by “light -weighting” packaging. Some are also substituting renewable “bio -resins” for PET. These efforts by companies are laudable but recent polls and focus groups of consumers show they don’t believe lightweighting and renewable resins equate to “sustainability.” If you are still throwing it away, even if it is lighter or renewable, you are still throwing it away. To consumers “sustainability” simply means recycling.

So if we need to recycle more, what is the best solution? Eleven states currently have some form of deposit system for beverage containers also known as “bottle bills.” Recycling rates in those jurisdictions range from 70% to 97%. I personally think a national bottle bill would serve the beverage industry best because we would gain credit from our consumers for taking personal responsibility for our packaging waste. They would probably adopt the same attitude as my mother who told me, “Son, if everyone around here picked up after themselves, I wouldn’t have to.” We would also avoid a state -by -state patchwork deposit system which could very well be imposed upon us.

Even though a national bottle bill strongly backed by a coalition of beverage companies would be a public relations coup for the beverage industry, it is fairly obvious mandatory curbside recycling is really the best reusable waste collection scheme. Without question our society would recapture a much larger amount of consumer packaging - glass, metal, paper and cardboard along with our beverage containers - if everybody were required to recycle. If we really want to make a difference, it should not be forgotten by critics that these other materials actually make up a larger share of the overall waste stream than plastic resins. Some places, like Seattle, Washington, are already implementing mandatory schemes.

What do we need to do as an industry to implement a national recycling policy? We must provide the leadership. We sure don’t want to rely on the leadership of politicians who may have other agendas or interest groups in mind. There have been numerous studies, industry task forces, and voluntary recycling commissions formed over the years by the biggest companies yet the only significant action taken by the beverage industry is to oppose legislated bottle bills. Falling back on platitudes about the virtues of voluntary recycling efforts won’t cut it in consumer’s minds in the future. We currently have a limited window of opportunity to define and push for a solution or we will be faced with declining bottled water sales and a patchwork regulatory system.

It is our choice. Now is the time. We must lead or suffer the consequences.

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