The $11.8 billion bottled water industry is a good example of the triumph of marketing over real need. After all, the stuff in the tap is mostly pretty safe, and a lot of the time bottled water isn’t very different from the regulated supply. Yet sales keep rising.
That’s bad news for the environment, of course. Between the impact of manufacturing bottles from PET, shipping heavy crates state-to-state, and all the containers that never get recycled–well, it’s a mess. And an unnecessary one at that. Most of the time what we need, arguably, isn’t so much a bottle of water, as a water bottle, and a safe place to fill it up.
There are some people who swear by Nalgene. But then personal bottles aren’t always practical, argues Eliza Becton, a Boston-based entrepreneur. “From my research, I found that people often forget their bottles, don’t like cleaning them, or they don’t like carrying them around because they’re bulky,” she says.
Becton has a compromise: a vending machine that cuts impacts dramatically. The Refresh uses a collapsible container that allows vending operators to stock five times more bottles in a machine, and that fills up bottles on-site, filtering water from the tap.
It also saves on refrigeration. Instead of cooling every bottle, the machine holds the equivalent of three or four bottles in a tank, only cooling what’s needed. In total, the machine cuts vending costs by 20% and the carbon footprint by 80%, Becton says.
When you order from the machine, it expands the nylon and polyurethane container, then adds water along with your selection of flavor. You can reuse the bottles afterwards, revisiting the machine and paying a reduced charge.
Becton argues that the model works in the interests of vending operators. Because the machine can hold 1,000 bottles instead of the normal 200, they don’t have to visit so regularly to restock. That means less gas and time. And, when they do need to restock, their cargo isn’t so heavy.
A 29-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Becton is running Refresh with cofounders Sean Grundy and Frank Lee. They are now working towards launching a beta version of the machine, along with a new version of the bottle. They hope to start rolling out in the Boston area in 2014.
It may be some time before they make a dent in the bottled water industry’s momentum. But then at least they could make start. For people who don’t want to carry a bottle around with them, having a lower-impact solution definitely makes sense.