At this point, most consumers have seen the dramatic photos online of sea turtles with straws embedded in their noses or sperm whales that have washed ashore filled with plastic trash. And the emotional response has been fierce and fast – prompting many brands to promise to phase out plastic straws in the coming years and retailers to discontinue offering plastic bags.
But these two examples are a little easier to execute because most people don’t need plastic straws and the proliferation of reusable bags available for sale or as free promotional gifts makes single-use bags unnecessary. Single use water bottles, however, are a bit more complicated to address because the US culture has not yet fully embraced toting around reusable water bottles and for those who have, finding a safe water source from which to refill those bottles is not always easy.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, we will talk with two beverage brands that are taking incremental steps to address the plastic problem by opting for other packaging materials for their spring water. The entrepreneurs behind the recently rebranded company Open Water, which was formerly known as Green Sheep, explain why they have opted for aluminum packaging instead of plastic. And the CEO of JUST Water talks about the benefits its paper-based bottle, and how the company’s mission is driving sales and expansion.
The scope of the problem
Both Open Water and JUST Water were launched about three years ago in direct response to the estimated 150 million metric tons that Ocean Conservancy estimates currently circulate our marine environments and the addition 8 million metric tons of plastic that it says are added to the oceans every year.
JUST Water CEO Ira Laufer explains that the idea for the carton water company was planted about eight or nine years ago when actor Will Smith’s son Jaden Smith experienced firsthand plastic in the ocean.
“Will Smith’s son was surfing in the ocean during a family vacation in Hawaii and bumping into a few plastic bottles of water floating in the ocean and started asking really pressing and fundamental questions about why does this happen,” Laufer said. “The family decided to really support and promote his passion and turn it into a company” that sells water bottled in a more environmentally-friendly paper carton.
The problem with plastic and inspiration for Open Water was equally personal, as company co-founder Nicole Doucet said. She explained she grew up enjoying access to the water and was discouraged by the amount of plastic bottles that end up in the ocean.
“The problem with plastic is that we are just using too much of it and most of never gets recycled. Seven out of every 10 bottles that are used end up in landfills and oceans and of the 30% that get recycled they are downcycled, which means a new plastic needs to be added into the mix to make the same product again,” she explained.
Consumers are jumping on board
While both companies were ahead of the curve when they launched, consumers are quickly following their lead and gaining awareness around the problem of single-use plastic containers.
Laufer explains that while there is a lot of misconceptions around recycling and the extent of the problem with plastic, consumer interest in finding solutions is growing exponentially.
“There is a lot of awareness coming and bringing to light those issues,” and while switching to a JUST Water carton is not a perfect solution, it is better than plastic, he said.
Doucet emphasizes a key component to educating consumers about the plastic problem and motivating them to make changes is to offer them viable alternatives that are not as difficult to adopt.
“In terms of making a switch that really makes a difference for the environment choosing reusable will always be the best option or skipping the bottle will always be the best option,” but it isn’t always feasible and so when consumers do need a bottle it is better if they can pick one that is more sustainable, such as one made out of aluminum, she said.
Two different solutions
In the spirit of offering viable and incremental solutions, both companies have embraced more environmentally-friendly packaging.
Laufer explains JUST Water opted for a carton because it is made out of 82% renewable resources with a cap and shoulder that are derived from plant-based plastic instead of petroleum based and can be recycled.
Once recycled, the cartons can be used to make sheet rock and the caps can be used to make another form of plastic, he added.
Carton recycling also has made strides in recent years. So, while there were limited facilities that could handle cartons originally, Laufer says now almost 70% of communities recycle the carton and organizations like Tetra Pak and the Carton Council continue to push for increased recycling of the packages.
The limited access to carton recycling in 2015 when Open Water – then Green Sheep – launched was one reason that the company opted to use aluminum bottles, even though at the time the idea of spring water in an aluminum container was not nearly as prevalent as it is today.
Company co-founder Jess Page explains how the company landed on aluminum.
“The recycling rate for aluminum is more than double that of plastic, glass and cartons as well, and it is also infinitely recyclable so that means that an aluminum package can be recycled in as little as 60 days and can be back on the shelf,” Page said.
A growing opportunity
Since launching in an aluminum bottle three years ago, Open Water has added the more recognizable 12-ounce standard can to its line up, and as already hinted at underwent a major rebranding, which Page explained more clearly communicates a) what is in its bottles and b) the social mission behind the brand and its unique packaging.
Rebranding and changing the name of a product and company is scary at any point, but to minimize the risk of losing loyal consumers due to confusion, Open Water kept many of the same visual components on the packaging as it had when it was Green Sheep.
Similarly, the new name more easily communicated what the product inside is as well as the company’s mission to help create a world with plastic-free oceans.
With these changes and based on the growing momentum in the non-plastic bottled water space, Doucet is optimistic for the future of Open Water.
“We are really excited regarding where the company is going and how we are growing. I think it has been amazing to see the change that has happened this past year and we are seeing customers’ … perceptions changing,” she said.
Laufer is also optimistic for the future of JUST Water, which is rapidly expanding but by taking a bit of an unconventional approach.
He explained that the company is focused on growing through strategic partnerships, such as with American Airlines, Tesla, schools and aquariums where there is a higher chance that consumers will understand what is at stake or be more willing to hear the messaging, buy on their values and share the word.
In addition, the brand now has new waters that are flavored with organic essences and is exploring the long-term potential to expand beyond water to other beverages, food, healthcare and beauty.