Steve Emery wants people in the bottled water business to know there is a different way.
A way to be environmentally minded and profitable at the same time.
A way where recycled-based packaging helps set the tone for sustainability.
Culver, population 1,300-and-some, is an out-of-the-way place in Oregon and home to Emery’s EartH20 brand, which sells its bottled water throughout the Northwest.
The company, while small by some standards, is a big employer in the little town.
“We’ve been in the bottled water business for a long time and our vision has been to change the industry,” said Emery, CEO and co-owner. “Ours is to set a pathway to show other companies that it can be done and hopefully they duplicate what we’re doing.”
EartH20’s location is no accident as the company sources its water from the Deschutes Valley Water District’s Opal Springs, which has a reputation for purity.
“It may be as old as 2,000 years old. When we bottle it, it’s the first time it’s seen sunlight in a long, long time. The water is a great story. The company is a great story. Our sustainability initiative is a great story. It fits in really well as the whole puzzle goes together. You can’t have one without the other,” Emery said. “We’re a natural spring water.”
EartH20 has enjoyed a two-decade history of providing bottled water, but the company’s sustainability journey with its packaging only has been evolving in recent years.
The company used to have empty bottles trucked to its plant constantly, first virgin resin bottles and then, about four years ago, 100-percent recycled content bottles.
It was then about three years ago that the company invested in blow molding machines and started buying recycled PET preforms to cut down on transportation. Another year passed before EartH20 made another investment to start making its own recycled PET preforms.
Now the company has said it has gone even further this year by being able to source recycled flake from Orpet LLC, a St. Helens, Ore.-based plastic recycler that reprocesses post-consumer PET captured through the state’s bottle bill program.
Tom Leaptrott is director of strategic partnering with Orpet and said the use of locally sourced recycled PET has an impact on citizen recyclers.
“I think it just shows them the importance of their recycling efforts. And they can actually see a tangible product now that you’ve got a closed loop,” he said. “This is really a huge deal for the state of Oregon.”
Orpet, since it opened in 2012, has provide recycled PET to thermoformed packaging makers in the Northwest, but Leaptrott said Earth20 is now “basically our biggest success.”
The bottled water company currently uses about 5 million of the 20 million pounds of flake produced each year by Orpet. The flake is sent to Peninsula Plastics Recycling Inc. of Turlock, Calif., and returned to Earth20 as food-grade pellets.
“Now we have closed the loop on the recycling,” said Mike Peterson, vice president of operations at EartH20. “The preforms we make, the bottles we make, those get recycled. They go back to Orpet. We start the process again with the washed flake and the [recycled] PET resin. Really the first one in the nation to do that closed loop with their own state recycling center.”
EartH20 figures it has decreased the amount of truck traffic by 100-fold from when it was trucking in empty bottles to now brining in pellets made from PET flake.
EartH20 has been around for about 20 years, and Emery has been at the company for about 15 years, first coming on board as president. It was about nine years ago that he purchased the company with partner Ted Buck.
Despite EartH20’s sustainability message, there are some people who just do not believe in bottled water.
“We’re not telling anybody that they shouldn’t drink what they want to drink. But if that’s their position, I think any packaged liquid beverage, they probably should just stop drinking. Bottled water has the lowest carbon impact of any of them,” Emery said.
“There’s a lot of people out there for health reasons, for quality of municipal water reasons, choose to drink bottled water. Market demand is where it should be. So if somebody doesn’t choose to drink bottled water, that’s their privilege, their right.”
With 72 workers these days, the company has just about doubled its workforce during the past three years. That is thanks, in part, to the decision to take bottle manufacturing in-house using 100-percent recycled PET. Some 13 of those employees work on the plastics side of the business.
Two injection molding machines each spit out 24 preforms every 37 seconds, 24 hours a day, six days a week.
“It’s all internal. We don’t sell any bottles. We don’t buy any bottles. As we continue to grow, we have to get more efficient. We have to waste less. And there’s nothing more powerful than having both your plastics department and your bottle filling department in the same facility,” Peterson said.
EartH20 makes its own 12-ounce and 16.9-ounce bottles from 19-gram preforms and two different styles of 20-ounce bottles from 25-gram preforms. Another two types of one-liter bottles are made from 35-gram preforms, Peterson said.
EartH20 also is working to internalize production of 100-percent recycled closures by sometime early next year.
There’s plenty of competition in the bottled water business, but Emery believes the entire industry would be better served if more companies looked at sustainability issues more closely and were willing to make investments like EartH20 has over the years.
“I care about the industry that we’re in. I care about the beverage industry. I think we’re a good industry. I think we’ve just foot faulted a lot of times due to trying to come up with an easy answer as opposed to making that very large, significant investment that will pay you off,” he said. “There’s ROI [return on investment] in it, but it takes a little bit of time to get that ROI and it takes a lot of effort,” he said.
EartH20/Oregon’s EartH20 first added in-house blow molding for its bottled water, then PET preforms. It now sources recycled PET locally.
EartH20/EartH20 began its own preform molding three years ago.