By switching to much-thinner material for water bottles, manufacturers are saving money and helping the environment at the same time.
If you've bought a bottle of spring water recently -- a little, half-liter one, the single serve kind -- you might have noticed how fragile it was: cellophane-thin walls, so easy to squish and crinkle; tiny, fiddly caps that seem to come off without any effort.
Why have the bottles become so insubstantial?
The answer: environmentally friendly operations. Or, less charitably but perhaps more accurately, operations that cut down on raw material use and, along the way, have environmentally pleasant side benefits.
Often, we think of operations management as a quest simply to cut costs, or speed up processes, in the name of ever-larger profits. It is that. But when companies tweak their operations to save money, they often end up having a positive environmental impact as well.
Consider Nestlé Waters North America, the company behind water brands such as Poland Spring, Arrowhead and Deer Park. It manufactures its own bottles -- an astonishing 20 billion each year. Starting about seven years ago, the company began to examine its processes. It discovered that it could use far less material in manufacturing its bottles, and that those bottles represented 55 percent of the company's carbon footprint.
"When you make improvements, you tackle the items with the most impact first," CEO Kim Jeffery said. "The bottle was the logical place to go."
In a comparison of a Poland Spring half-liter bottle from 2005 and one from 2012, the differences aren't merely aesthetic. Making the 2005 bottle required 14.6 grams of resin. The 2012 bottle uses only 9.2 grams.
"We used to go through 600 million pounds of resin each year," Jeffery said. "Today, even though we're making more bottles because the business has grown, we use 400 million pounds of resin."
That's less material waste -- along with a smaller label on the 2012 bottle, which conserves paper. It also leads to less energy waste. The resin for each bottle starts out shaped like a test tube, before a machine heats it and blows in air to stretch it out. With less resin in each bottle, it takes less heat and air to stretch the bottle into shape.
"That's an immediate 10 percent energy savings on the bottle itself," Jeffery said.
The company's machines produce 1,200 bottles every minute.
The lighter weight of the finished bottles also reduces the carbon footprint of the trucks that transport them. Bottles are stacked three pallets high inside the trucks, and then travel hundreds of miles on sometimes bumpy roads, so although the newer bottle is 40 percent lighter it still needs to maintain the same structural integrity. This is accomplished with a system of cleverly engineered, angled ribs that crisscross the bottle's walls. Recognizing the green marketing possibilities, the company dubbed the new design "Eco-Shape."
The bottles are manufactured and filled with water at the same facility. This means no fuel is wasted driving trucks full of empty bottles to the plant -- so they can be filled with water and shipped back out again. That saves 600,000 truck shipments of empty bottles each year, keeping both costs and carbon emissions down.
No doubt you are now thinking, "But wouldn't it be much more environmentally friendly if we just drank tap water out of glasses, instead of spring water out of plastic bottles?" Yes, of course. But Jeffery argues this is the wrong comparison to make.
"We used to be the antidote to obesity in America," he said, "and then one morning I woke up with a black hat on my head because our product comes in a bottle. But there are 70,000 beverage products in the U.S. that come in a bottle. Why vilify us, when we're the one that's healthiest and that has a lighter carbon footprint?"
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