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Why this grocery chain is ditching single-use bottled water

If you can get it from the tap, you can’t buy it in these Oregon and California supermarkets.

Why this grocery chain is ditching single-use bottled water
[Photo: New Seasons Market]
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If you walk down the drinks aisle inside one of New Seasons Market’s Portland, Oregon, grocery stores later this month, you’ll notice something missing: A shelf that used to hold bottled water will be mostly empty, with plastic and glass bottles replaced by a smaller number of reusable bottles. Another empty shelf below it will be covered with a sign boosting reuse.

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New Seasons Market, a chain of 19 stores primarily based in Oregon, and New Leaf Community Markets, its California-based subsidiary, will no longer sell standard single-use bottled water, starting April 22. “We’ve been thinking about packaging in general for a long time,” says sustainability manager Athena Petty. Two years ago, managers decided to begin planning how to eliminate bottled water from store shelves.

[Photo: New Seasons Market]
The sustainability challenge from bottled water keeps growing. By one estimate, more than half a trillion plastic bottles will be produced this year, and the majority won’t be recycled. As consumers have become more aware of the problem—and the fact that millions of tons of plastic ends up in the ocean—some water brands have started shifting to different types of packaging. Aluminum cans are especially popular. But New Seasons Market’s decision applies to all aluminum and glass bottles as well.

“We’ve been really trying to lead by making decisions that are science-based,” says Petty, who got feedback from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as the grocery team researched the impacts of different types of packaging. It’s not that other materials don’t have negatives: Glass, for example, is more likely to be recycled but has a higher carbon footprint when bottles are delivered because it’s heavier. Aluminum cans are also more likely to be recycled but more than half in the U.S. still end up trashed. Making an aluminum can, even with recycled material, also has some environmental impact.

[Photo: New Seasons Market]
“Just removing plastic takes away the opportunity to drive the real message, which is, we shouldn’t be thinking about using things once, period,” Petty says. “What we need to do as a culture is change behavior to one that really supports reuse and preventing waste before it becomes an issue in the first place.” The company is also experimenting with other ways to increase reusable packaging, including a partnership with a startup that offers reusable containers for food in its deli.

The stores will continue selling larger plastic jugs of both still and sparkling water. “We did a variety of analytics to decide what is the right mix and size of water bottles to eliminate from our shelf and decided to go with anything that you could get from the tap,” she says. “So that’s one liter and less still water.”

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For customers who come into the store wanting to walk out with a small bottle of water, a reusable bottle from Pathwater is a replacement. The stores also have refill stations. While its customers in sustainability-focused Portland and Santa Cruz might already be more likely than the average American to carry reusable bottles, the change will still make a difference: In a year, the stores have been selling more than a quarter of a million bottles of water.

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, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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