Food Service & Agriculture and Sustainability

Walker company says: Recycle your empty water bottle

Talk of banning bottled water has Great Lakes Bottling Co. wary, but not too worried.

October 27, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Walker company says: Recycle your empty water bottle
Scott Jousma of Great Lakes Bottled Water with samples of its own brand of flavored water for kids, Tropical Kooler. The drinks are sold in Meijer stores and other retail outlets. Photo by Pete Daly

Recent publicity about proposals to ban bottled water has the industry wary, but a growing Walker company that is one of the state’s largest private label water bottlers says recycling is the reasonable solution.

The city of Concord, Mass., just banned the sale of water in single-serve PET (polyethylene terephthalate plastic) bottles. Some colleges are doing likewise: In January, the University of Vermont will become the largest U.S. university to ban sales of bottled water, the result of a student initiative.

Much closer to home, Traverse City Mayor Mike Estes recently proposed banning the sale of bottled water at future major public events there such as the National Cherry Festival, because so many empties end up as litter on the ground.

Estes thinks people should bring refillable bottles to the Cherry Festival and refill them free at water stations provided by the city.

“Personally, I think it’s a little extreme,” said Great Lakes Bottled Water sales director Scott Jousma, when asked his opinion of the Traverse City proposal.

“I would rather see a much bigger push for recycling as an alternative to an outright ban,” added Jousma.

Outdoor events where bottled water is sold or handed out ought to make it easier for the public to recycle those containers right there, he noted.

Ironically, the sale of bottled water at the Cherry Festival is a major revenue source for the festival itself, a fact which sort of threw cold water on the mayor’s idea. The sale of cold bottled water at the festival on hot, sunny days is also considered a safety factor, so the city commission didn’t take any action on the ban proposal and it may be dead.

Hot weather actually is a major seasonal driver of demand in the bottled water industry. Whenever the broadcast news media in the U.S. reports on dangerous, wide-spread heat waves, the B-roll invariably shows containers of bottled water being handed out to perspiring people.

The spike in consumption during hot weather is so pronounced that Great Lakes employment jumps from 20 or so most of the year to as many as 30 during the hot summer months.

Jousma said that when the first warm days of spring arrive, suddenly “calls are coming in” from customers, he said, because people are back outside, participating in sports and playing golf.

Unlike carbonated beverages such as beer and pop, there is no deposit on containers of water or juice, so they are either recycled or pitched in the trash. A deposit on water bottles has been proposed, said Jousma, but that would entail more investment by the retailers who would have to accept the empties, so that’s not a quick remedy, either.

Biodegradable disposable water bottles made from a derivative of corn are also touted as a solution — even as the price of corn goes up because so much more of it goes into ethanol added to gasoline. But “green” bottles are a big talking point now.

“More and more people are starting to ask about it,” said Jousma. One customer, he said, called to inquire about getting its future orders in biodegradable bottles because the company is moving to a LEED-certified building.

Sales of bottled water have increased so dramatically in the last 10 years, and so many companies are doing it now, that a radical change in packaging probably would not happen overnight. Since 2000, according to the International Bottled Water Association, approximately 73 percent of the growth in bottled water consumption has come from people switching from carbonated soft drinks. The IBWA represents companies of all sizes, but the vast majority of its 640 members are small, locally owned companies, with 90 percent of them reporting less than $10 million in annual gross sales and 60 percent reporting $2 million or less.

Great Lakes is what is termed a “private label” bottled water business model, of which there are probably only two or three in Michigan, according to Jousma. Great Lakes, he said, is probably the largest. However, the private label companies are much smaller than the giants in the bottled water industry — Ice Mountain and Absopure — but they have other ways to compete.

The Great Lakes product, for example, is more than just a disposable bottle of water. It is also a fund-raising mechanism, and/or an advertising medium.

“Our slogan is, ‘a refreshing way to advertise,’” said Jousma.

Great Lakes has many customers that are either businesses or nonprofit organizations that order their bottled water for sale or distribution at public events, with customized labels promoting that business or organization.

School athletics boosters have found that some people would prefer to buy a bottle of water than a candy bar. The health advantage cannot be denied and the bottle of water will have a much longer shelf life.

The business that ultimately became Great Lakes was founded in 1992 and had a 60,000-square-foot bottling plant on 44th Street in Kentwood, near the airport, according to papers on file at the city of Walker. It was acquired by Country Fresh/Dean Foods in 1998.

In 2008, the business was acquired by Duane DeWitt, who formed Great Lakes Bottling Co. The business was then relocated to 105,000 leased square feet within a larger building at 2710 Northridge Drive in Walker. In early 2010, the city granted Great Lakes a personal property tax exemption on a nearly $1 million investment in equipment.

In applying for the tax exemption in 2010, Great Lakes told the city its key customers are several major retailers, including Meijer, and that it was producing water and flavored water in single-serve bottles, gallon jugs and 10-quart containers. It had more than 200 customers in 2010, and 1,200 private labels.

Jousma said last week he was not sure how many gallons a year are bottled at Great Lakes, guessing it might be about 4 million. However, he noted that the new plant has the space and equipment for “capacity to do even more.”

Jousma said its market is the Midwest, in general, but Great Lakes is very healthy and still growing. He declined to reveal annual sales revenues because it is a privately owned business.

In 2009, the company greatly expanded its product offerings with the introduction of several brands of flavored drink products for kids, which have proven very popular and are sold in convenience stores as well as larger grocery retailers. Tropical Koolers and Crazy Ape are two of the brands, in brightly colored labels and small containers, designed to catch the eye of a youngster. They contain about 1 percent juice and the rest is flavored, colored water.

Great Lakes also sells gallons of water, spring water and distilled water. Another company in the Grand Rapids area actually owns a spring and supplies both the spring water and distilled.

Great Lakes also sells flavored water in gallons under its own house brand and labeled for retailers such as Meijer.

All the water is filtered, even that purchased from the city water supply, and all bottled water companies are regulated by the government and audited for quality control because it is considered a packaged food.

Great Lakes also has begun bottling an unsweetened tea drink, and officials plan to continue expanding their product line. They don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the suggestions to ban bottled water.

“We just keep our head down and keep working,” said Jousma.

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