The bottled-water industry continues to receive criticism, and industry executives continue to fight back, touting their recycling initiatives and efforts to lightweight bottles, as well as the convenience of their products.
``We are being taken to task for what is a light environmental footprint, but perception is reality,'' said Nestle Waters North America Chief Executive Officer and President Kim Jeffery. He spoke at the Conference Board's Business and Sustainable Development conference June 12-13 in Washington. The conference was sponsored by Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich.
``It doesn't matter if you think your critics are extreme, wrong or dangerous. They can make an impact and get visibility immediately because of electronic media,'' said Jeffery, whose Greenwich, Conn., company holds a 35 percent share of the bottled water market.
``We are getting a lot of criticism. Our industry has become the bad guy and I don't expect we will get that target off our backs for a long time. We can dig in or we can take a leadership role.''
Nestle recycles the 3- and 5-gallon containers for water it delivers to 1.5 million homes and offices, using each about 35 times before grinding them into recycled resins that are used to make automobile parts, playground equipment, lawn furniture and other products.
In addition, Jeffery said Nestle is working with ExxonMobil Corp. to set up recycling programs at 7-Eleven Inc. convenience stores, and is considering an expanded recycling partnership with Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
He also said that within the next year, all the customers on its delivery route ``will be able to return everything to us.''
``We will work with our stakeholders to generate 60 percent recycling rates for PET containers by 2013 and to use 25 percent [recycled] PET in our bottles by 2013.''
Those are formidable targets, as the recycling rates for PET bottles for water and beverages was 23.5 percent in 2006, and the Container Recycling Institute estimates the recycling rate for PET water bottles is about 10 percent.
But they are targets Jeffery said the bottled-water sector needs to achieve. ``It is bad for business, bad for the environment and wasteful'' not to recycle, Jeffery said. ``Why do we want to bury something that is useful? Plastic containers are all over this country.''
He cited high density polyethylene containers for detergents and food, among other things, which in 2006 had a recycling rate of 26.4 percent.
``Every company that uses plastics in its packaging has a responsibility to push for comprehensive initiatives to really move the needle on recycling,'' Jeffery said. ``It is not about not using [plastic containers], it is about getting them back.''
Jeffery said he supports a nationwide bottle bill to increase recycling of all containers, both PET and HDPE.
``I am very outspoken in support of comprehensive initiatives to recycle all containers in this country,'' Jeffery said. ``It is our goal to help promote a comprehensive recycling program that significantly improves recycling rates in this country.''
Opposition to the bottled-water sector has been growing. Think Outside the Bottle, a campaign led by Corporate Accountability International in Boston, estimates more than 60 cities have begun to phase out or eliminate the use of bottled water at city facilities. In addition, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a nonbinding resolution June 23 in Miami urging mayors to phase out city spending on bottled water.
``It's just plain common sense for cities to stop padding the bottled-water industry's bottom line at taxpayer expense,'' Gigi Kellett, national director of Think Outside the Bottle, said in a news release.
``This resolution will send the strong message that opting for tap over bottled water is what's best for our environment, our pocketbooks and our long-term, equitable access to our most essential resource.''
Jeffery called attacks that single out bottled water ``stupid,'' in light of that industry's lower environmental footprint compared with its competitors.
``As long as we have mayors who would ban us rather than work on comprehensive recycling programs, we will have problems,'' Jeffery said.
The average bottled-water container uses 21 grams of plastic, compared with 28 grams in a typical carbonated soft- drink bottle, according to Nestle.
What's more, Nestle has reduced the weight of its bottled-water containers from 21 grams in 1992 to 12.5 grams this year with its new Eco-Shape bottles, with a reduction to 10.5 grams slated by next year.
By contrast, he said, comparable bottles that contain energy drinks, such as Gatorade, typically use 35 grams of plastics.
Jeffery said every 2-gram reduction on an individual bottle cuts the amount of plastics used in its containers by 65 million pounds. That also cuts Nestle's energy consumption by 10 percent and reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent each year.
``We have the lightest environmental footprint of any beverage company in the United States,'' he said.
Jeffery also points to dramatically lower water use by bottled- water companies, saying Nestle uses 1.3 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of water, compared with soft drink companies that use 3 gallons of water to make a gallon of soft drinks, and beer companies that use 42 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of beer.
``We are the most efficient user of water in the beverage industry,'' he said. ``People aren't thinking about the total environmental footprint. This is not a rational debate here. Nobody knows the truth and it is hard [to combat]. We are being raked on what is the issue du jour.''
What's more, unlike some tap water, ``there are no pharma concentrates or chlorine byproducts in our product,'' said Jeffery. ``For all of us, bottled water should be considered an important part of sustainability.''
But Nestle is not immune to product recalls. On June 24, it announced a recall of the 1-gallon Nestle Pure Life Purified Drinking Water sold in Shop-Rite stores in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Nestle said the recall affects fewer than 150 bottles and the product in question may contain a diluted form of a common food-grade cleaning compound that results in a bitter or sour taste. It said consumption could pose a potential health concern if ingested in large quantities over an extended period of time.
Jeffery challenged corporations to put sustainability at the core of their businesses.
``My job as a CEO, father of four and a citizen is to help direct the resources of this company to higher levels of sustainability,'' he said.
``Think broadly about what sustainability means and what you can do to leave the world as well off, if not better,'' Jeffery said. ``Measure and understand your impacts along the whole value chain, not just what you directly control. Get outside your four walls and work with stakeholders to tests goals and to measure them. You have to think about sustainability as a continuous process, a journey, not a destination.''