If you’ve bought a bottle of spring water recently—a little, half-liter one, the single serve kind—you may have noticed how fragile it was. Cellophane-thin walls, so easy to squish and crinkle. Tiny, fiddly caps that seem to come off without any effort. Why have these bottles become so insubstantial?
The answer: environmentally friendly operations. Or, less charitably but perhaps more accurately, operations that cut down on raw material use and, along the way, have environmentally pleasant side benefits.
Often, we think of operations management as a quest simply to cut costs, or speed up processes, in the name of ever-larger profits. And it is that. But when companies tweak their operations to save money, they often end up having a positive environmental impact as well.
Consider Nestlé Waters North America, the company behind water brands like Poland Spring, Arrowhead, and Deer Park. It manufactures all its own bottles—an astonishing 20 billion each year. Starting about seven years ago, the company began to examine its processes. It discovered 1) that it could use far less material in manufacturing its bottles, and 2) that those bottles represented 55 percent of the company’s carbon footprint. “When you make improvements,” says CEO Kim Jeffery, “you tackle the items with the most impact first. The bottle was the logical place to go.”
Here’s a side-by-side portrait of a Poland Spring half-liter bottle from 2005, and one from 2012:
The differences aren’t merely aesthetic. Making the 2005 bottle required 14.6 grams of resin. The 2012 bottle uses only 9.2 grams of resin. (Plastic is a general term describing a moldable material. The plastic in many water and soft drink bottles is made of PET—a specific type of resin.) “We used to go through 600 million pounds of resin each year,” says Jeffery. “Today, even though we’re making more bottles because the business has grown, we use 400 million pounds of resin.”
That’s less material waste (and, by the way, note the smaller label on the 2012 bottle, which conserves paper). It also leads to less energy waste. The resin for each bottle starts out shaped like a test tube, before a machine heats it and blows in air to stretch it out. With less resin in each bottle, it takes less heat and air to stretch the bottle into shape. “That’s an immediate 10 percent energy savings on the bottle itself,” says Jeffery. And the company’s machines produce 1,200 bottles every minute.
The lighter weight of the finished bottles also reduces the carbon footprint of the trucks that transport them. Bottles are stacked three palletes high inside these trucks, and then travel hundreds of miles on sometimes bumpy roads, so although the newer bottle is 40 percent lighter it still needs to maintain the same structural integrity. This is accomplished with a system of cleverly engineered, angled ribs that crisscross the bottle’s walls. Recognizing the green marketing possibilities, the company dubbed the new design “Eco-Shape.”
These bottles are manufactured and filled with water at the same facility. This means no fuel is wasted driving trucks full of empty bottles to the plant—so they can be filled with water and shipped back out again. That saves 600,000 truck shipments of empty bottles each year, keeping both costs and carbon emissions down.
No doubt you are now thinking, “But wouldn’t it be much more environmentally friendly if we just drank tap water out of glasses, instead of spring water out of plastic bottles?” Yes, of course. But Jeffery argues this is the wrong comparison to make.
“We used to be the antidote to obesity in America,” he says, “and then one morning I woke up with a black hat on my head because our product comes in a bottle. But there are 70,000 beverage products in the U.S. that come in a bottle. Why vilify us, when we’re the one that's healthiest and that has a lighter carbon footprint?”
Jeffery’s contention is that people will always drink beverages out of bottles—because they care about convenience, food safety, and so on. It’s just a matter of which kind of bottles they drink from. “We’re not making more bottles, beverage industry-wide,” he says. “The number of bottles is the same. We're just trading around the types of packages we're using.”
His argument holds that it’s much better for the environment if people drink bottled water than bottled soft drinks. This comes back again, in part, to the bottles themselves. For example, Jeffery says that some Gatorade bottles weigh four times as much as a Poland Spring bottle. Bottle walls do need to be thicker when bottles are “hot filled” with recently pasteurized beverages, which reach temperatures of 240 degrees. Spring water doesn’t need to be pasteurized—and a slender Poland Spring bottle heated to that temperature would begin to deform and shrink.
Jeffery says bottles for carbonated soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi tend to weigh about twice as much as a Poland Spring bottle. Carbonated drinks require hefty bottle caps, with deep screw threads, because the contents are under pressure and the cap needs to be strong enough to hold all that carbonation in. A good deal of the “lightweighting” of the Poland Spring bottle came out of the realization that the cap on a noncarbonated beverage could be much less substantial. “Some people don’t like it,” says Jeffery. “The smaller cap is harder to hold and to get your fingers around. But the environmental impact was too big to ignore.”
This is all generally good news for the planet. But it’s important to note that these are not selfless sacrifices. Poland Spring is not an altruistic entity. “You can't be a public company and ask shareholders to bear the burden of higher costs just so you can be green,” says Jeffery. “It has to be consistent with creating shareholder value. There needs to be a return on these investments. So, for example, when you use 200 million fewer pounds of resin a year, at 90 cents a pound, that’s a huge savings.”
Think about that the next time you hydrate on the go. And then remember to recycle.