Coke launched its bottled water brand, Dasani, 20 years ago. It’s now the bestselling bottled water in the U.S. at a time when bottled water is also the country’s best-selling beverage. The industry sells billions of bottles in a year—and it knows that most of those bottles aren’t recycled.
But if you want to buy sparkling water from Dasani’s new vending machine, you won’t get a plastic bottle. In fact, you can’t buy the water at all unless you supply your own bottle. The machine, called PureFill, is one of 100 that Dasani is rolling out to test as one approach to deal with the problem of plastic waste, of which it is a major contributor. “It’s actually an experiment in how comfortable are people with that type of delivery,” says Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability at Coca-Cola.
It’s part of a handful of new strategies that the company announced today it is trying to reduce plastic waste. This fall, it will start selling Dasani in aluminum cans in the Northeast, expanding to other regions next year, followed by aluminum bottles. Aluminum cans are more likely to be recycled than plastic bottles, and are made from more recycled material. (PepsiCo plans to begin testing Aquafina sold in cans next year, and is also beginning to use cans for some of its other brands. Other small brands, like Open Water, are already using aluminum bottles or cans.) “We are a consumer company, and as consumers say, ‘Well, we’d like to try cans,’ we’re going to put cans in the market,” Karas says. Dasani is also launching a new bottle that uses a mix of plant-based plastic and recycled plastic (as a variation on Coke’s PlantBottle), and is continuing to shrink the amount of plastic that it uses in its bottles overall by making bottles lighter in weight. But its most radical approach is what Karas and others in the industry call “packageless delivery.”
“Refilling reusable bottles is the only low-impact option,” the U.K.-based nonprofit Green Alliance wrote in a recent report, noting that as companies switch to other forms of packaging, other materials come with trade-offs. Mining aluminum, for example, creates toxic waste. In the U.S., aluminum recycling rates are falling. Glass bottles also have a carbon footprint from production, and their heavier weight means that they also create more emissions during transportation than plastic. “Refill systems can and must replace single-use plastic water bottles,” says Dianna Cohen, cofounder and CEO of another nonprofit, the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “The time is now for all of us to think ‘reusable’ instead of ‘disposable.'”
Dasani has no plans to eliminate single-use bottles, but if it launches PureFill widely, it might help nudge more consumers to start using reusables more often. The company has already tested a handful of the PureFill stations at college campuses, beginning with a pilot at Georgia Institute of Technology, where students can use an app to get free filtered water or pay a small fee for sparkling or flavored water. The pilot was successful enough that the company expanded to two other schools. The next expansion will be aimed at workplaces, where the business model will likely be different. (The need also seems less acute, since offices already have water coolers as a matter of course, but Dasani says that this could also expand to places like airports; the San Francisco Airport, for example, recently banned plastic water bottles, and some travelers there might choose to refill sparkling water in a reusable bottle rather than buying another drink.) In each case, the machine hooks up to the local water system—meaning that the companies also avoid the carbon footprint of shipping water long distances.
It’s not clear how much this can begin to replace traditional bottled water, since public drinking fountains already exist and sales of bottled water continue to rise, despite growing awareness about plastic pollution. Dasani is also focused initially on markets where its products aren’t available in bottles, so it isn’t competing with itself. But if marketing drove the demand for bottled water in the first place—making a little-used product ubiquitous late in the 20th century—it’s possible that marketing could also help change habits. PepsiCo is testing a “hydration platform” similar to Coke’s, with a dispenser and an app. The companies will continue to iterate on the designs and pricing. But it’s likely a significant business opportunity: the nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that replacing only 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusables, including refill stations, is an untapped, $10 billion market.