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Kicking Our Bottled Water Addiction

Avoiding the space between the rock and the hard spot

Green meetings – everyone’s for them, right? We’re all trying to do what we can to minimize our carbon footprint. But what about that nasty bottled water habit?  Americans’ use of water bottles is estimated at over 60 million bottles EVERY DAY. And it takes about 20 million barrels of oil to make a year’s worth of those bottles.

So what can we do about all the water bottles used in meetings? Attendees love the convenience, the portability and the assurance of freshness that comes with bottled water. Environmentalists complain about the ever-growing landfills and waste of natural resources. Economists point to the ways the manufacture and shipping of plastic bottles add to our dependence on foreign oil. Seems like the proverbial spot between a rock and a hard place, doesn't it?

A few years ago Q Center’s green team was working to reduce the impact of our bottled water service on the environment. At the time we were recycling about 50% of the bottles we served. “While we were proud of that rate (the national average in 2009 was 31%), we wanted to do better,” says Bob Stephanites, Q Center’s Conference Operations Director and leader of our green team. “Despite our best efforts, we couldn't seem to sustain a consistent capture rate over 55%. So the team went in search of another solution.” We rejected several options. Pitchers of ice water in meeting rooms posed logistical concerns and had condensation and spillage issues. Water dispensers that use large, 5-gallon bottles of water weren’t the answer either. There were storage and distribution hurdles to overcome and the bottles were still plastic.

Enter Alpine Water Systems, a nationwide provider of filtered water systems. “We all used to drink tap water,” comments Nate Jacobson, VP Marketing for Alpine Water Systems. “People these days are not just environmentally conscious, they’re health conscious. Unfortunately, tap water in some locations is not as good for you as it used to be. With systems like ours, you can provide virtually pure water for pennies a serving.” The system uses a series of filters to remove impurities from tap water. The water is then pressured through a membrane that only allows water molecules to pass. Because the purified water is not exposed to air, bacteria don’t enter it in storage so it’s as clean as it can get. The purified water is dispensed from units that look similar to regular water coolers.

“I’ll admit that we had some concerns about this solution at first,” recalls Stephanites. “Could a filtered water system measure up to our guests’ standards? Would the system be able to handle hundreds of people all wanting water at the same time? How would the cost compare to what we’d been experiencing with bottled water service?”

We ran a two-month pilot test and did point-of-use opinion surveys. Feedback was positive, with one exception. The plastic cups we were using were still an environmental concern. We tried paper cups, but they started to leak after a short time. Ultimately we were able to find an affordable “plastic” cup, lid and straw made from renewable plant resources like corn.

“Since we eliminated bottled water service on coffee breaks in January, 2009, we have received a lot of positive feedback from our guests. They like the quality of the product and are pleased about our efforts to reduce our impact on the environment. And the program paid for itself in the first year,” Stephanites said.

In part 2 we’ll talk more about the benefits of this kind of program and advice for anyone who’s looking for ways to eliminate bottled water. Come back next week to see the post.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the pros and cons of bottled water service for meetings. Leave a comment and let us know.




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