Inspiration hit Thomson in 2011 while on a beach cleanup with two children.
“I looked back, maybe it was the way the sun was, but that was my epiphany,” he remembered.
He saw that the children had lined up a row of collected bottled so they could stomp them down to fit more into their bags.
“I went, ‘Wow, there it is.' I don't know anything about the plastic industry, I don't know anything about it at all, but I knew that if I could turn that plastic into a tile,” he said.
By the following year, 2012, Thomson had patented the concept and decided to devote his life to creating a sustainable roofing product from plastic bottles.
Fast forward to 2015. The bottle designs are done, the product has just launched and Thomson has high hopes for the future.
Priced slightly higher than other bottled water by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. in Costa Rica, Agua Costa Rica water sells for the equivalent of about $1.25 to $1.30 in U.S. dollars, 725 colones in Costa Rica.
A slight premium, based on market studies, but not so much that it won't gain broad appeal. The rectangular bottles are shipped 14 to a recycled PET tote that stores can give out to their customers. The totes, Thomson pointed out, are actually less expensive than cardboard boxes and provide another important reuse aspect to the project.
Plenty of thought went into designing and engineering just the right bottle that could then be used as a building product.
“We had to go about creating two rock star products with one design. We think that's our white space. That hasn't been done before. We call that ‘waste discount design.' That's really cool. Why we call it waste discount design is that I get my waste stream back for almost for free. So now I've got a discount on my supply stream for my next industry,” he said, which is building roofs.
Empty bottles are compacted slightly with a special device to create a shape that can then be filled with a mixture of recycled paper, foam and cement to provide stability and strength. Those bottles are mounted on rails and weaved together with string to provide hurricane-force roof protection.
The design is such that a panel of these bottles-turned-roofing tiles can be attached directly to rafters, eliminating the need for a roofing substrate at the right pitch.
CRDC hopes to recapture 40 percent of the water bottles sold through Agua Costa Rica.
“I get my raw material back for almost zero cost. That's a really great business model. That's a whole new deal,” he said.
Thomson hopes this new approach will allow Agua Costa Rica to have success in an already-crowded bottled water market.
“You need to have a really cool bottle and something that attracts people's attention. The bottled water industry is really competitive. So if you don't have a cool story, you're not going to break into the market. A lot of people thought our story was pretty cool,” he said.
Thomson figures a small house needs about 5,000 bottles to construct a roof and an average home in Costa Rica will need about 8,000 bottles.
Mike Urquhart, who made a name for himself in the bottle industry through a decades-long career at Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., is a company director and likes what he sees.
Urquhart, now retired from Husky, and Thomson met a few years ago through a mutual friend, and he's now using his plastic industry knowhow to help guide and promote CRDC.
“You can run recycled content in this [bottle] originally and then reuse it for 50 years, which is just unheard of in the business,” Urquhart said. “This was a nice model and a nice bottle that has a unique shape and a unique feel to it and you get to reuse the cap as well.
“I love the way you do the shipping of them to the store, even it's more ecofriendly,” he told Thomson.
Urquhart said Agua Costa Rica has “the lowest carbon footprint of any water system that I've ever seen and I've been involved in just about all of them,” Urquhart said.
Using recycled paper to help fill the bottle roofing tiles also allows the container to serve as a carbon sink because the paper will not decompose, Thomson said.
“A big part of what we're trying to do is not only be zero waste, but it's also really, really lower that carbon footprint down to where we can justify using that plastic bottle. And maybe even in the best case ... make a carbon neutral bottle,” Thomson said.
“And then when a product like this ends up on somebody's roof is just phenomenal. There's been nothing like this in our industry,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart said he is very particular about what he gets involved with these days after retiring. “Husky was very good to me. I don't need to work, so I just work on things that are interesting,” he said.
“In coming from the house builders' side, he saw things that nobody in the plastics industry would have seen and made a product out of it,” Urquhart said.
“Mike is well known in the industry and we're newbies to the industry,” Thomson said. “We're construction guys. You need that kind of expertise. We're trying to do a world-class product. We can handle the world class on the housing side, and Mike can certainly bring the world class on the plastics industry side.”
“And, we think, we can achieve these pretty lofty goals. We're both at an age where I don't want to get involved in anything that's not going to make a big difference.”