In less than a year, Primo Water Corp. has boosted the number of grocery stores that carry and sell its single-serving water bottles made from corn-based polylactic acid to 3,500 from 2,500. Primo also has added distribution in about 400 convenience stores and on several college campuses, including Wake Forest University near the firm's headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The growth of Primo's distribution network less than two years after another manufacturer of PLA water bottles, Biota Brands of America, went bankrupt reflects an expanding green mind-set among retailers, restaurants and colleges, said Primo's marketing and communications vice president, Tim Ronan.
We have provided a consumer packaging demand in what was an unserved market, Ronan said in an interview at the Plastics Recycling Conference, held Feb. 24-25 in Orlando.
For many organizations, it fits their strategy of being green. Schools really like it, because they are pushing really hard to increase their sustainability. We also have been getting calls from restaurants and airlines, he said.
Ronan would not disclose market share or how much sales have increased since Primo's To Go water bottles were introduced in April. But case sales at grocery stores constitute the majority of that business, he said. Sales into colleges are also important, for brand recognition among the millennial generation, who will influence what the environment will be in the future, he added.
Questions remain about whether bottles are the best end use for PLA resin, and whether the bottles which look identical to PET bottles will contaminate the PET recycling stream.
An analysis of near-infrared and laser technology sorting systems released Feb. 23 by NatureWorks LCC of Blair, Neb., said there is no technological barrier to sorting PLA from PET, and such systems accurately can detect PLA bottles at efficiency rates of 96-99 percent.
NatureWorks supplies its Ingeo-brand PLA for Primo water bottles.
But PET reclaimers recently surveyed by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. for Resource Recycling magazine said that PLA bottles, because of PLA's lower melting point, caused drying, hazing and solid-state problems even when recyclers operated PLA separation equipment. In addition, the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry in Madison, Wis., suggests that PLA levels of one-tenth of 1 percent or even less could contaminate sorted PET streams.
Greenplastics Inc., an Auckland, New Zealand-based product stewardship group that develops recycling options for PLA, has cautioned consumers not to set PLA bottles out for curbside collection. The group argues that PLA can't be commercially recycled until volumes are big enough roughly 200 million pounds to support a commercially viable recycling stream.
Although PLA is biodegradable, it needs to be separated and sent to commercial composting facilities to decompose. But a limited number of such facilities exist in the U.S. and the amount of PLA in the market does not justify spending the typical $350,000 for a near-infrared sorting system for separating PLA, several reclaimers said.
Because of the plethora of issues surrounding the material, Ronan said it is important for Primo to reach out to stakeholders to provide information and develop an understanding of what this resin is all about.
We have to develop the facts and do the testing, he said.
To that end, Primo joined 19 other organizations last fall to form the Bioplastics Recycling Consortium.
Our vision is to make bioplastics easier to recover, recycle and resell compared to other widely used post-consumer materials, Ronan said. We need to be green. We need to be functional. So we decided to take the lead as a brand builder.
Among the issues the consortium needs to address are sorting costs and the threshold size of loads that would be efficient to sort. We need to address the difficulty in sorting material in large and small quantities, create and develop end-market values and uses for post-consumer bioplastics, and give consumers the ability to recognize what to do with all plastics and bioplastics with respect to recycling, he said.
Brian Glasbrenner, global business and market development manager for NatureWorks' Ingeo, agreed.
We have to understand the concerns, ideas and visions of all stakeholders and learn how to get PLA [recycled] back into PLA in a viable economic model that fits into end-of-life infrastructures, Glasbrenner said. We need to have critical mass and end markets for PLA and it has to be sustainable from both the supply and process side. We also have to support the development of improved recovery of all materials, not just PLA.
The industry also needs to make recycling simple for consumers, he added. Right now, it is confusing, he said. If we can make it simple, the recycling rates will increase for all materials. We have to turn the ship to collect more.
Think of all the other things to collect from clamshells to cups. We don't need more groups. We just need more action by stakeholders, all working together, Glasbrenner said.
Primo's single-serve water bottles are sold in 2,000 Kroger grocery stores and some 20 other supermarket chains, with Winn- Dixie, Publix and Albertson's being the latest to add Primo Water to their stores, according to Ronan.
Primo uses a regional strategy for distribution, rather than shipping the 16.9-ounce bottles, which are sold in packs of 18, around the country. Primo, a 4-year-old, privately owned company, also sells water coolers and 3- and 5-gallon containers made from PET at several national retailers like Lowe's home improvement stores, as well as regional retailers.
Santa Barbara, Calif.-based consultant Arthur von Wiesenberger, who founded the BottledWaterWeb site, said despite its expanded distribution, Primo faces an uphill battle: There are between 800-900 water bottle brands in the U.S., with private labels and brands from Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola dominating.
Primo also must develop recycling end markets, or its attractiveness could fade in the manner of barrier PET beer bottles, said Bob Lilienfeld, president of Cygnus Group, a Rochester, Mich., sustainability consulting firm.
But Ronan is undaunted by those challenges, or by those who suggest bottles aren't the best use for PLA simply because a recycling market already exists for PET containers.
Our data suggests that consumers will pay for green materials, he said. As a company, we want to move away from PET, because it is an oil-based material and nonsustainable and doesn't need to be used in packaging applications.