As water refill stations become more common, consumer habits of carrying reusable bottles haven’t necessarily kept up. That’s why FloWater, a company that makes refill stations, is now beginning to offer a new type of aluminum reusable bottle next to its equipment—for roughly the same cost as premium bottled water sold in single-use plastic.
“It’s a gateway,” says FloWater CEO Rich Razgaitis of the new bottle, which is made from aluminum and designed to retail for $2 or $3. It can be reused as many as 20 times before it’s recycled. “It’s not the end solution. It’s to help provide a pathway for people who are in the habit of buying single-use to buy something that they can reuse multiple times.”
The company has around 5,000 refill stations in the U.S. at locations like gyms, schools, hotels, and retail stores, which all typically provide the water as a free amenity for guests. (In the case of retail stores, Razgaitis says that the refill stations help draw more customers inside and increase sales of other products.) The equipment connects to local tap water supplies, but runs the water through a series of filters to remove lead, microplastics, the “forever chemical” PFAS, pesticides, and other contaminants that might make it through a city’s water plant. The machine also adds minerals like calcium and magnesium and uses a coconut carbon filter to improve the taste.
“The idea behind this was how do we create kind of a mini bottling plant at the point of dispense that actually turns tap water into something consumers prefer to bottled water and that tastes better than bottled water,” he says. “The issue that we have in the U.S. isn’t that we don’t have enough water faucets. The issue is that consumers just generally don’t like or trust tap water . . . to the tune of $20 billion a year in bottled water sales.”
In locations where it has added refill stations, even when water coolers or other alternatives were previously available, the company says that it has seen 80% reductions in single-use packaging, along with 50% drops in soda and coffee consumption. “What this really speaks to is that if we’re successful in providing a product that people prefer to bottled water, behavior will change,” he says.
Major brands, including Pepsi and Coke, are experimenting with refill stations designed for use with reusable bottles. But they may be focusing more effort on finding a new type of packaging, not trying to fully wean consumers from bottles. “My opinion is that ‘Big Bottled Water’ would love nothing more than to at some point, reluctantly give up single-use plastics and move it over to a cardboard or a corrugated or TetraPak and call it a day because that works with their business model,” says Razgaitis. “And really what we’re trying to do is decentralize and provide distributed water purification.”
Coke is now beginning to sell Dasani water in aluminum cans and bottles in some markets, for example, and Pepsi is doing the same with Aquafina. (In fact, the bottles look similar to FloWater’s, though they are sold as single-use containers.) Aluminum does have some advantages to plastic—it’s more likely to be recycled, and the material itself can be infinitely recycled, which isn’t possible with traditional plastic recycling.
Since FloWater’s new “multi-use” bottles are far cheaper than standard reusable bottles, it’s possible that consumers may treat them as disposable (after all, one of the challenges that consumers sometimes cite about reusable bottles is that they don’t want to carry an empty bottle around). But the bottles are printed with messaging aimed at convincing people to reuse them, and Razgaitis is hopeful that people will use them at least five or 10 times before recycling—and then, ideally, graduating to a true reusable bottle. He also argues that something similar could happen in the future for soda, energy drinks, and other beverages. “I think ultimately the future is to have a decentralized platform that is creating beverages that consumers love but also is fully unpackaged.”