Fiji water throws TerraPass office into confused hysteria

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Well, not really. But this is an interesting curveball. Fiji Water has announced a raft of sustainability initiatives, including a pledge to become not just carbon neutral but carbon negative through direct investments in renewable energy and the purchase of carbon offsets:

Specifically, the company says it will install a windmill in 2009 to provide energy to its bottling plant in Fiji in the South Pacific; it will ship bottles of water intended for sale on the East Coast to the Port of Philadelphia, rather than truck them east from Los Angeles, as it does now; it will use biodiesel and other alternative fuels in its trucks and as a backup at its plant when the winds are calm; and it will reduce the amount of plastic and paper it uses for bottles and cartons.

Understand that the carbon community holds Fiji Water in roughly the same regard they do Hummers. That is, with a disdain that borders on the irrational. (“You mean to tell me you’re taking a product that can be produced locally and is available for free virtually everywhere on the planet, and replacing it with an expensive version that is packaged in tiny plastic bottles before being shipped 10,000 miles on emissions-spewing cargo boats and trucks? Kill me now.”)

So here’s the question: if people are going to be drinking bottled water anyway, is Fiji now an ecologically responsible choice?

The article includes the usual dueling talking points from Connie Conciliatory and Sammy Shrill, the two environmentalists who are always trotted out to react to such announcements. My quick polling of the TerraPass office shows sentiment to be running pretty heavily against Fiji.

Personally, I plan to continue avoiding bottled water, and recommend that others do so as well. If you must drink it, look for something bottled locally. But I admit that the economic development angle of this story does give me some pause. The Pacific islands are isolated and poor. And if climate change is all we care about, a case can be made that these countries just shouldn’t participate in the global economy in any significant way, which is not a conclusion I’m particularly comfortable with.

Big-picture point: the sooner we put a price on carbon, the sooner these environmental considerations will be priced into the products themselves, and we can all fret a little less when making daily purchase decisions.

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Brian Vo.

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  1. Jen McCabe Gorman - November 12, 2007

    Adam -

    Excellent piece…when I can’t drag my Nalgene around I’ll go Fiji from now on.

    Lately I’ve seen some wines sold in individual cardboard (biodegradable/recyclable) sippers…is this any more enviro-friendly than bottled wines? Would this type of packaging translate to the H2O market?

    Thanks for the update!

  2. Adam Stein - November 13, 2007

    The lighter weight packaging is definitely more environmentally friendly. It cuts back on shipping emissions. I’ve got a more extended post on this coming up.
    I’m less clear on whether this would help with water, which is generally already in lightweight packaging.

  3. Linda Flores-Tober - November 14, 2007

    The problem is still that we are privatizing clean water, which will be the new “oil”. As of this writing only abut 2% of the water in the world is fresh and of that nearly 1/2 of that is not drinkable. If private companies own the last of the potable water, water will become a luxury of the rich, but oops we all need clean water to live. Bottom line: stick to tap water (buy a filter if you don’t like the taste).

  4. CJ Bomar - November 14, 2007

    If the necessity of bottled water is a given, I personally do not think so, but if it continues to say around. Then each of the companies that continue to produce and distribute MUST make conscience strides to eliminate their impact on our precious environment. I applaud Fiji for it’s statements, but why not construct the wind power NOW and what about the shipments that are not carried by their own trucks???? Also I have been doing some reading on shipments carried by rail. Is rail truly more environmentally friendly????

  5. richard schumacher - November 14, 2007

    Rail is much better than trucking the same (long) distance, roughly 1/3 the energy. Many existing locomotives are still relatively dirty but that’s easy to fix.

  6. Brandon Galbraith - November 14, 2007

    Richard -
    More of the older locomotives are being retired and replaced by GE’s new locomotive system (which is much more efficient):
    http://www.getransportation.com/na/en/locomotives.html
    Pay particular interest to their hybrid locomotive (which works under the same principle as a Prius).

  7. Amy Kay - November 14, 2007

    Can someone tell me authoritatively about how much, how well, plastic beverage packaging is currently recycled? I don’t think I buy enough patagonia sweaters to make up for my roommates’ Mountain doo vending machine purchases.

  8. steve - November 14, 2007

    Sounds like this might be good, but I do not understand the shipping all the way to the east coast. Is that less polluting than environmentally friendly road transport from California?

  9. PBrazelton - November 14, 2007

    Martin Mizera, I kind of doubt it. I’m not sure exactly where Terrapass is on the pro/con continuum, but generally speaking ethanol is considered a fuel source of last resort amongst environmentalists. I’m sure you’re heard the arguments – treating biomass like waste, the marginal energy return, the vast quantities of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers being dumped into watersheds – and can understand where people would have reservations. In any case, I do.

  10. Adam Stein - November 14, 2007

    Amy Kay — Google to the rescue. Apparently only about 12% of water bottles and 30% of soda bottles (19% overall) are recycled. Pretty awful.
    Steve — What’s environmentally friendly road transport? Trucks are definitely dirtier than container ships.
    PBrazelton — I deleted Martin’s comment, which wasn’t appropriate here. We’re not an investment company (and if we were, we wouldn’t be funding ethanol plants).

  11. Justin - November 14, 2007

    Linda-
    I fail to see the logic in the “privatizing water” argument. Buying water from a public source and reselling it is not the same as privatizing a public utility, since everyone can still buy it from the public utility. The “Stop Corporate Abuse” campaign that keeps repeating the privatization line strikes me as very bizarre.
    FWIW, I think Fiji water is still an absurd idea. If people want to pay for the true environmental cost of shipping a commodity product 10,000 miles, fine, but it’s still stupid. Of course, Perrier’s been doing it for a long time, and they attract less attention.

  12. michael - November 14, 2007

    I carry a 2 quart sized glass bottle with me every day. I use water from my well. I clean the bottle once a week. I have my well water tested once a year. I’ve been using the same bottle for over a year…the last one broke when I dropped it. I don’t understand the whole plastic bottle thingy.
    Regarding wine…at the risk of having something thrown at me, I do prefer that wine be sold just the way has been for the last 400-500 years, in a bottle. Perhaps this industry can work out a way to ship in more intelligent ways, but I cannot imagine the activity that surrounds wine is the same as the activity that surrounds (plastic) bottled water.

  13. Wendy Grace - November 14, 2007

    [Ed. -- deleted for general loopiness. We generally discourage commercial solicitations in the blog comments (although we do think it's cool when readers recommend products they like to other readers.)]

  14. Anonymous - November 15, 2007

    If “restructures the water so that your cells absorb it better” doesn’t make your B.S. detector tingle, Wendy Grace links to her own site which makes further bizarre claims that “Decades ago, scientists discovered that the water in a remote area of Japan produced amazing results on the surrounding plants.” Google for “nikken pi water scam”; it found http://www.chem1.com/CQ/gallery.html that lists dozens of water-related pseudoscientific quack terms.
    I drink tapwater.

  15. Amy Kay - November 16, 2007

    Thanks for the packaging recycling link, Adam. There I learned that there IS demand for recycled bottle plastic (insert “plastics” quote from The Graduate here), but the supply is limited by guess what? Beverage consumer compliance! and/or a convenient disposal system (read: government & business initiative).
    I drink tap water and from the bubbler no problem. Admission: I do buy packaged water, but only fizzy mineral water in glass bottles. Its weight as I tote my gro-s home reminds me of its status as a relative luxury. I harbor a belief that glass is recycled efficiently and economically — anyone want to set me straight?

  16. John Chan - August 10, 2008

    I grew up in Tasmania where the water out of the tap was probably up there with the purest in the world and our family lived on that. However I am now in a big city and I have found it hard to adjust to tap water as I was so spoilt, but the guilt of buying bottled water is strong. What a prediciment.

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