Surge in bottled-water demand brings more business — and scrutiny — for Nestlé Waters
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, July 16, 2017
STAMFORD — Demand for bottled water in the U.S. is turning into a torrent.
Consumption has spiked as Americans have increasingly sought healthier alternatives to carbonated and sugary beverages in an option they see as safe and reliable.
The rise of bottled water represents a boon and challenge for Stamford-based Nestlé Waters North America, a dominant force in the market. To generate enough supply for its growing customer base, Nestlé Waters has submitted a controversial proposal to increase its production capacity at a Michigan spring. More bottles also create littering hazards. On both fronts, company officials said they are taking action to ensure their operations are environmentally sustainable.
“We are responsible water stewards,” Nelson Switzer, Nestlé Waters North America’s chief sustainability officer, said in an interview this month at the Nestlé Waters headquarters on Long Ridge Road. “We operate sustainably, and we understand water is a renewable resource as long as you manage the resource responsibly.”
Reasons for bottled water
In 2015, Americans bought 11.6 billion gallons of bottled water, according to market-research firm Beverage Marketing Corp. The total equated to a 6.6 percent annual increase, which outpaced the uptick for all other major beverage groups.
Bottled water accounted for about 19 percent of packaged-beverage consumption in the U.S. in 2015, up from about 12 percent in 2003.
“People have made a choice, a conscious decision to lead a different type of lifestyle,” Switzer said. “Consumers have become readily aware of the health implications of drinking things other than pure products, and natural spring water is certainly a fantastic alternative.”
On average, each American drank about 36 gallons of bottled water in 2015.
Packaged water is also thriving amid an era of growing concerns about the safety and quality of public drinking sources. Some two-thirds of Americans believe their community’s clean drinking water is at risk, according to results released earlier this month from a Nestlé Waters-commissioned study.
A contentious proposal
Responding to rising demand among consumers in the Midwest, Nestlé Waters has filed an application with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to increase its pumping capacity at its White Pine Springs well near the city of Evart in northern Michigan.
Nestlé Waters wants to increase its allowed pumping rate to 400 gallons per minute, compared with a current limit of 250 gallons. In 2015, the state granted the company an increase from its original cap of 150 gallons per minute there.
“Just because we’re putting in the application for 400 doesn’t mean it’s going to run at 400 GPM most of the time,” Switzer said. “It might spike somewhere near there from time to time, but it would be rather infrequent. The fact is we want to make sure that we don’t spike Evart beyond our permitted capacity. So having that capacity permitted is important.”
The proposed increase requires a permit approval, which has led to intense scrutiny, including more than 50,000 public comments.
“We want to make sure an applicant is showing they’re doing improvement projects that are offsetting any measurable impact,” said James Clift, policy director for the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council. “The Nestlé project basically did not offer anything on that. They offered no improvement projects in the watershed.”
In response, Nestlé Waters officials said they have undertaken projects for years to improve the Muskegon River watershed around White Pine Springs, a strategy they said includes more than $500,000 in contributions to the Ice Mountain Environmental Stewardship Fund. In its application, the company offered to tackle any adverse impacts related to the pumping.
Clift said the Michigan Environmental Council would see the application as acceptable if it guaranteed that Nestlé Waters would improve the watershed — planting in unforested areas would be an example — and held the company to a remediation plan if water levels in surrounding rivers and streams were to drop below certain levels. But the group is still not supporting the request.
Managing the bottles
Increased bottled-water consumption would also create more waste, if those plastic bottles are not properly disposed.
About 5 percent of plastic beverage bottles turn into litter, according to a 2009 study by Stamford nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. In comparison, cigarette butts generated the highest litter rate, 57 percent.
To reduce littering, Nestlé Waters announced in May that it would contribute $6 million to a $100 million investment fund for recycling infrastructure and programs in cities across the U.S.
“The challenge is that recycling infrastructure in the United States is woefully inadequate,” Switzer said. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve invested $6 million in the Closed Loop Fund.”
Among key education initiatives, Nestlé Waters is a founding partner of the “I Want To Be Recycled” PSA campaign that Keep America Beautiful launched with the Ad Council in 2013. The company is also teaming with Keep America Beautiful, Coca-Cola and the PepsiCo and Walmart foundations to fund recycling education for some 10,000 students affected by the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
“I think Nestlé Waters tries to be a good steward of the products they’re producing,” said Cecile Carson, Keep America Beautiful’s vice president of litter and affiliate relations. “This is something that should be recognized. They’re trying to do what they can to get those products back in for recycling and not be littered.”
email@example.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott