An entrepreneurial couple capitalizes on the movement against single-use plastic by reinventing packaging for water.
Portlanders Marcelle and Edward Abel are an active couple who enjoy traveling and hiking with their 11-year-old twins. Like many eco-conscious couples, they fill reusable bottles with water to take with them on trips. But — as is often the case with many of us — when their reusable containers run dry, there is little alternative to buying plastic-bottled water.
The Abels are loath to buy single-use plastic. Growing awareness of the damage the material has on the planet has led to consumers seeking alternative packaging. Haunting images of marine creatures dying because of ingesting or becoming trapped in discarded plastic has led to growing consumer backlash against plastic.
“It is easy for consumers to get their head around the issue when they see plastic in the ocean,” says Nina Goodrich, executive director of environmental nonprofit GreenBlue. “Things they can’t see, like climate change, are harder to handle.”
Yet few alternatives exist in the market for bottled water. Plastic remains king because it is cheap to manufacture.
Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
The Abels want to change that. In February 2020 they launched Koz Water, a company that sells purified still water in aluminum cans. It is a bold attempt to create a sustainable packaging alternative in the $24 billion U.S. market for plastic-bottled water.
The Abels chose aluminum because it is far more recyclable than plastic. Seventy-five percent of canned aluminum is still in use. It can also be recycled infinitely, while plastic can be recycled up to seven times before it is no longer viable.
The public often underestimates how much plastic is recycled. Most plastic ends up in landfills because of poor infrastructure for collecting and sorting. The cheap price of oil also disincentivizes companies from using recycled plastic because it costs less money to produce virgin plastic.
In 2017, the most recent data available, only 8% of the 35.4 million tons of plastic generated in the U.S. was recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It is estimated that annually 38 million plastic bottles end up in landfills.
Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, and in countries with poor waste management, it finds its way into seas and oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris in the north-central Pacific Ocean, is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world and is estimated to cover a surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas.
Aluminum is already widely used to package soft drinks, such as soda and flavored sparkling-water beverages. It is also used to package beer and even wine. But canning purified still water is a novel concept. This is because it is difficult and more expensive to prevent contamination to water without including additives such as minerals and electrolytes, which are typically added to flavored, carbonated beverages.
It costs between 1 and 2 cents to make a plastic bottle and between 8 and 9 cents to make an aluminum can. Because of this, the three large multinational companies that dominate the market — Coke, Pepsi and Nestle — have not sought to commercialize alternatives.
Coke alone produces 200,000 plastic bottles per minute. The beverage maker was named the world’s biggest plastic polluter in 2019 by environmental nonprofit Break Free From Plastic. Coke says it has no plans to move away from single-use plastic bottles.
A few companies have experimented with other packaging materials, such as boxed water and tetra packs. But these consist of around 20% plastic and are not widely recycled.
The Abels, however, feel they are onto something. Consumer backlash against single-use plastic means people may be willing to pay more for canned water because of the environmental benefits, they say. The company’s cans of water cost between 50 cents and 60 cents more than plastic-bottled water.
“We are a little more expensive,” says Marcelle. “With scale we plan to be more competitive with plastic. We hope to reach consumers who are not concerned about paying 50 to 60 cents more.”
Marcelle is a former Marine Corps reservist who enlisted immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She feels that launching the business mirrors how she felt about joining the military after the attacks. “I want to take action and not wait for somebody else to do it,” she says.
The couple researched manufacturers that could produce purified still water in a can and came upon their first big challenge. The number of manufacturers that have the equipment and expertise were few and far between. They also wanted to work with a single supplier to minimize shipping.
Eventually, the couple found one of the only U.S. manufacturers that fit the bill: California-based Alum Beverages which specializes in canned water for disaster relief and emergency preparation. Its aluminum-canned water contains, on average, 70% recycled content.
Alum Beverages purifies water using a 12-step filtration process that includes filtering water using charcoal and applying UV light to disinfect. It is canned under pressure to eliminate air and keep the water fresh.
Despite its higher recycling rates, environmental experts caution that the environmental attributes of aluminum can only be realized if it is sorted and collected for processing. Recycling rates for the metal vary by state.
In Oregon the collection rates for both plastic and aluminum cans are relatively high because of the Bottle Bill, legislation passed in 1971 that, under current law, provides a 10-cent refund for collection of beverage containers.
But recent growth in the amount of waste generated and China’s ban on importing waste for recycling has resulted in lower waste-recovery rates in the state. The amount of total waste recycled, composted and incinerated to produce energy declined 1% between 2017 and 2018, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Nationally, the recycling rate for aluminum beer and soda cans in 2017, the most recent available data, was 49%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The national recycling rate for plastic bottles made of PET, a lightweight material widely used in packaging foods, was 29%.
The low recycling rates stem more from a problem with infrastructure than with consumers’ willingness to recycle, says Jamie Pang, environmental health program director for the Oregon Environmental Council. “Consumers want something better. But the question is: After we buy this product, is it really sustainable and recyclable after it escapes our control?”
In Oregon and in other states, households dispose of cans and plastic in commingled curbside recycling. “From there it is hard to tell what percentage of aluminum cans will be recycled,” says Pang. “If aluminum increased tenfold, we would see more aluminum pollution, too,” she predicts.
Goodrich at GreenBlue echoes that the problem lies with recycling infrastructure rather than consumers’ readiness to recycle. “If you have a robust recycling-collection system, aluminum makes sense. It does not make sense without high recovery rates,” says Goodrich.
Marcelle says her company wants to encourage recycling programs across the country as well as reduce plastic waste. It donates a portion of its profits to recycling programs and uses marketing and social media to raise awareness about the importance of recycling.
In January Koz Water had 200,000 cans of water delivered to a warehouse in Oregon City ready for distribution. Most of its sales are online. Amazon sales were up 40% in April compared with March, says Edward. Buyers come from all over the U.S., including Atlanta, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles and New York.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a big disruption to the startup’s ability to sell in retail stores. The company had success in getting its product on the shelf in a grocery store in Canby, as well as in a couple of mom-and-pop shops in Portland.
But it has yet to land the big-league grocery stores. Those supermarkets are unlikely to add new products until the pandemic abates and supply chains start to open up again. “COVID has shut the door on a lot of opportunities,” says Edward.
The company is also targeting sales to businesses that want to go plastic-free in the workplace. Some companies are getting rid of plastic bottles as part of sustainability goals. Nike, for example, last year committed to eliminating single-use plastics on its campuses worldwide.
Before the pandemic, a number of local companies showed interest in the canned water, including Acumed, a local maker of medical device equipment, and Bigfoot Beverages, a drinks distributor. Both companies could not be reached for comment.
Several school districts have also shown interest. West Linn-Wilsonville School District has sought to reduce plastic to lower its environmental impact, as well as set an example to its students and community, says Andrew Kilstrom, director of communications.
The district stocks up on bottled water for emergency use only, said Kilstrom in an email. It received samples of Koz Water, which is one of the alternatives it is considering. “Bottled water has been used in the past primarily because it’s relatively cost-effective and convenient in an emergency-type setting,” says Kilstrom.
“But the district is always looking to minimize use of plastic or overall impact when possible. This includes the use of plastic in school cafeterias, staff rooms, other district facilities.”
Events are another area of the economy the company plans to target. But the shelter-in-place policies because of the pandemic have put these plans on hold. Edward says he is still in discussions with event planners, but there is uncertainty over whether the events will go ahead.
For now, the company is relying on Amazon sales. Before the pandemic, the Abels targeted $150,000 gross revenue for the year. That figure will be more like $30,000 if the company has to rely on online sales only, says Edward.
Although the pandemic has dampened opportunities, there are already national and global discussions about how to rebuild the economy on a more green footing. The decline in greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants as a result of lockdowns has offered a glimpse of the environmental progress that can be made.
The world’s reliance on plastics, particularly in food packaging, will be one of the areas that will increasingly come under scrutiny, especially given the dire predictions that the world’s oceans could contain more plastic in weight than fish by 2050.
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