Interview with Nestlé Waters’ New Sustainability Director: Part 1

I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Washburn, who just recently hired on with Nestlé Waters as director of sustainability. Prior to this job Michael came from an NGO background, with senior positions at both the Wilderness Society and the Forest Stewardship Council. He has a PhD in Forest Policy from Penn State. We spoke for close to an hour, so what you see below are excerpts from that conversation which will be presented in three parts.

Triple Pundit: Hello Michael. Congratulations on your new position. Given your environmental background, you must have been a little skeptical. What convinced you that Nestlé is sincere in their sustainability efforts?

Michael Washburn: After my departure from the Wilderness Society, I was looking for some more challenges across a broad spectrum of issues. During my interview process with Nestlé Waters, I made it a point to be vivid in my commitment to the environment. Everyone that I tested that with resonated with it, saying, “that’s what we want.”

3p: You mention challenges. What do you think are the biggest challenges you face as you take on this job?

MW: The biggest, most visible footprint that the company has right now, I think is the plastic package, and from the CEO right on down, Nestlé Waters believes that the best way for us to really add value to society is ultimately have those bottles, recollected, recycled and made back into some productive use, ideally back into bottles again. That is no small deal given the complexity of state and local legislation or the lack thereof around the country. Today, collection rates are not high, a lot of the material is shipped offshore and with it go what would otherwise be domestic jobs. We don’t have the capacity to attract investors to build what we need to process that material. So there are challenges both in collecting the material and in getting parties involved to process it. We share that commitment with a lot of other entities both inside the industry and outside. That is probably the biggest thing I’ve been asked to work on.

Energy is another area, reducing our use, becoming more efficient and trying to move the company over time to renewable energy.

Then third, making sure our spring sites are appropriately tended and that we’re engaging communities in a respectful, constructive fashion, providing jobs and being a good neighbor.

3p: In your short time there, have you run into people who are angry at the company?

MW: People do get excited about this issue, and I understand as an environmentalist, the idea that resources shouldn’t be unnecessarily used. But if you think about bottled water in the context of other packaged beverages that you might find in a grocery store, every one of those things is in a package and it has water in it, and everything except the bottled water has lots of other stuff in it. And a lot of the impacts come from that other stuff, particularly on the sugar side.

So if we want to have a discussion about unnecessary resource use, we should talk about jet travel, the entertainment industry, and things like that. But I don’t think that’s where society is, I don’t think we’re in a place where we’re prepared to say, “let’s get rid of ____.”

So I set aside the question “should the industry go away” because that’s not a realistic question to me. And then when you look at the state of municipal water systems in this country, and elsewhere, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this industry is a benefit to people and we’ve got some other problems to solve. My point of view is, let’s have a rational conversation about how to balance society’s needs with efficient resource use. We all agree that we’re not doing this as efficiently or in as closed-loop fashion as we’d like, so let’s talk about moving it to that.

Certainly if you listen to the president speak you can see that even he is concerned about infrastructure that is failing. And given the fiscal climate it seems unlikely that not a lot is going to be done about that in the short term. As a citizen I worry about that. Meantime in Scottsdale, where I live, and where my family drinks bottled water, there was a piece in the paper about arsenic in the Phoenix municipal system. But the notion that if we suddenly stopped drinking bottled water, we could turn around and instantly fix that system, is a connection that I struggle to make. We have to bring attention to that problem for sure, and if we see opportunities for the company to engage in that discussion, I think I would be inclined to do so, but that’s not my primary mission.

3p: Do you think there are other ways to address the problem besides having more people drink bottled water?

MW: Yes. In addition to selling half-liter individual serve packaged bottles, we also sell home and office delivery five gallon bottles and we also manufacture reverse osmosis five gallon residential filters that people can purchase and install if they want to get clean fresh water that way. If you look at where we’re headed, we see ourselves as a “healthy hydration company,” and we’d like to get to a place where we give people as many options as possible. One new model is currently being tested: a dispensing type vending machine that would dispense purified water or possibly spring water into your own reusable bottle.

That’s being tested on college campuses, the idea being, we’ll guarantee that the water’s clean, you put it into whatever package you want to put it in. So there are a lot of ways to crack this nut and over time we’re going to evolve to try to address those issues. There are two models currently under test: one that dispenses filtered tap water and the other that contains several large containers of spring water. We don’t really understand the market dynamics of it yet. Our CEO spoke at the Net Impact conference and was told by the students there, “we’re fine with your water; we just don’t like your bottle.”

So this is an attempt to respond to that.  In the prototype, there are three choices, for small, medium and large, as opposed to a gas pump type of thing where it is metered out continuously.

Interview Continues here


RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

7 responses

  1. This interview is a good start on an important discussion for everyone. I am left with the impression that Nestle has not latched onto a really exciting ultimate vision for the bottles used to bottle water. An exciting vision is more than collecting, recycling and hopefully making bottles into something useful. These goals have leak points (incomplete collection, waste in the recycling process and ultimately downcycling to a landfill, use as a fuel, or floating on an ocean somewhere). Nestle should have an ultimate goal of pushing for bottles that can become food for somewhere in our living systems. That way, there is no so-called waste. All the bottles don’t have to be collected because no matter where they end up they are harmlessly digestible.

  2. Recycling takes care of the back end – reusing the bottle to make more or something else. We also need to look at the front end – sourcing. If the bottle came from oil, it is not sustainable. P&G is doing something interesting here. It is packaging cosmetics in plastic which comes from sugar cane. Basically an industrial process which converts sugar cane ethanol to polyethylene, which is a drop-in substitute for oil-based plastics. This has the advantage of pulling CO2 from the air, getting it into sustainable packaging, and then that packaging can be recycled to something permanent like jungle gyms or deck planks, accomplishing CO2 sequestration starting with green plants. General Biomass is interested in talking to people who want to make this type of packaging from nonfood biomass.

  3. What about the idea of not using plastic at all and moving back to glass? Wouldn’t that be the more sustainable packaging to move too?

    And for the plant bottle and other plant based plastics, is this recyclable? What happens if that bottle gets put into the recycling with other plastic bottles? Are we creating another problem and huge challenge for our recycling centers who are over capacity with the amount of plastics (and various kinds) we are sending to them?

    Also, how do we educate the consumer on all of these packaging issues and recycling habits?

    I just think that going back to glass is the real answer here.

  4. I’m glad that Nestle is making an investment into improving their sustainability.

    Michael Washburn has signed up for quite a challenge.

    Even a bottle made from sugar cane has a huge environmental cost.

    Even with no container, it doesn’t make environmental sense to truck water to places where water is already plumbed. It only makes economic sense for a huge profit for Nestle.

    I drink tap water every day to satisfy my environmental conscience and have bought less than 10 bottles since 2009.

    I do buy Nestle’s chocolate, though–I can’t get a glass of Nestle’s Crunch from my faucet!

  5. Regarding the comment about going back to glass, one needs to take into account the full life-cycle impacts to make the best choice. I’ve seen the results of some legitimate studies (can’t put my finger on them right now) that show that glass can have more of a negative environmental impact than plastic. Glass is highly energy-intensive to produce, and even the recycling is fairly energy-intensive, although much less than the original production. And, glass bottles are much heavier per unit of volume than plastic, resulting in much more fuel consumption to truck them. These are some of the reasons that companies like Honest Tea have gone away from glass to plastic.

    Believe me, I’m no fan of bottled water, and use filtered public water in my reusable bottle myself, but just wanted to make the point that we need to consider the full impact of bottle choices if there must be bottles.

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