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  • 09.01.15

Boxed Water Wants To Add A Tiny Bit Of Sustainability To The Bottled Water Industry

Just Water is trying to get rid of some of the most wasteful packaging in the world–and wants to remind you that tap water is just as good.

Boxed Water Wants To Add A Tiny Bit Of Sustainability To The Bottled Water Industry

The mountain of plastic water bottles headed to landfills keeps growing, despite the best efforts of campaigns to push reusables and tap water. So a startup is trying a different approach: Is it possible to design a bottle that’s better for the environment, even if it might end up in the trash?

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Just Water, which will launch at Whole Foods in late September, doesn’t use barely uses any plastic (there’s a little in the lining). Instead, it’s half paper, with an interior lining like you’d find with your favorite coconut water. The design cuts the carbon footprint of making the package in half (unlike something like the PlantBottle, which has a carbon footprint only around 11% better than normal plastic). Because the cartons can ship flat to a filling station–instead of shipping boxes of empty plastic bottles–they also save fuel. Once filled, the square cartons neatly fill up a truck without wasting space.

Call it the pragmatic approach: If people aren’t going to stop drinking bottled water, give them a better option.

“We would never tell people to drink this instead of what’s coming out of their tap,” says Grace Jeon, CEO of Just Water. “But we know that packaged water or bottled water is not going away. It’s a category that continues to increase.”

By 2014, Americans were drinking twice as much bottled water as they did at the turn of the millennium. This year, it went up another 7%. By 2017, bottled water may outsell soda.

That doesn’t mean that the total number of plastic bottles has gone up as you might think–while bottled water use doubled, soda fell about 25% during the same time. “People are drinking less of the sugary stuff and more of the water,” says Jeon. “That really is reflected in the next generation of consumers.”

The package, designed by TetraPak, can be recycled–though only if a city has the right facilities. “It’s a chicken and egg problem,” says Jeon. “But carton recycling has grown 200% in the last two years. I give props to the likes of coconut water and other products that have been using more paper-based packaging.”

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The water inside is sourced from Glen Falls, a small town at the base of the Adirondacks. “We had to find an area where the water tastes good, and a geography where the water is plentiful,” she says. One of the founders of the company is from Glen Falls, and realized that the startup could help give the town’s struggling economy a boost.

“We pay six times what the residents pay for treated water,” Jeon says. “Now all of a sudden the city is able to create a revenue stream with this excess resource. There’s a lot of aging infrastructure–particularly water infrastructure–and this will help take care of those needs.” The filling plant for the new startup is inside an abandoned church, restored by a local construction team. Later, they hope to repeat the process in other small towns.

For the founders, the ubiquity of bottled water made it an obvious product to tackle. “In order to make a greater impact, there was this idea that it would be great if it was more inclusive, and more and more people had the opportunity to participate,” says Jeon. “What about the idea of making everyday goods better? What if we did it to a category that is large . . . and where there’s a desire for better options?”

They plan to continue pushing the sustainability of the design, and by late 2016, plan to add in a resin made from sugar, making the package 84% renewable.

Just Water isn’t the only company trying something different–Whole Foods already stocks a brand called Boxed Water Is Better, which describes itself as “part sustainable water company, part art project.” Will bigger brands follow? And will more consumers start to choose paper cartons over bottles?

The startup acknowledges that drinking tap water is still the obvious best choice. “Do things that are more responsible,” Jeon says. “But we know that you may find yourself in situations where you may need packaged water on the go. And if you’re confronted with that choice, wouldn’t it be cool to have an alternative? That’s really our position.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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