Shipping Water?

I have to admit, I am a water junky. I drink most likely gallons of water a day. I have all but abandoned sodas, and only drink coffee in the morning. Otherwise, it’s all water. Of course, having such a water addiction means that I, like most junkies, want my “fix” all the time. And I want my “fix” to be the purest possible. For me, this means a reliance on filters at home, and bottles of water when I am not home.

I tell myself this is healthy. This is a good thing. That I am keeping my body healthy. And yet, I can’t help but wonder about the efficiencies of a system that makes clean and pure water available to drink, out of half-liter bottles.

There are a number of concerns here, almost all of which touch on environmental issues, but are also at their heart “supply chain” issues. For instance, if we are shipping cases of water, we are moving tons, literally tons, of water by truck. This uses resources that could perhaps be used, or even saved, to move other things. What resources? Well, the obvious resource is fuel required to power the trucks. In addition, the bottles of water take up space in trailers that could, perhaps, have been used for transporting some other good.

And then, of course, there are the issues of storage. Storage at the bottling plants, at the distribution centers, and finally storage at the retailer. A friend of mine used to work at a bottler, and she had told one of my classes that, to prepare for the busiest months of summer, they started stockpiling bottled water in January. This required that they seek “off site” contractor storage, just to store bottles of water! When you think about this, the costs just keep adding up. Obviously, the bottler incurs an additional cost when they have to pay a contractor for storage. But they also have to pay to transport the water to the 3PL (third part logistics provider’s) warehouse. Again, using fuel, and trucks. Finally, they have at least one additional step moving the water from that warehouse to the retailer, but more than likely bringing it back to their own distribution center first.

And of course, being a good conservative, seeking to conserve resources, I think we should also practice reuse, and recycling. This requires a collecting of the bottles, shipping them to a processing facility, and then sorting and melting them. Can you see the use of resources tied up now, heading both directions in this supply chain? All for the delivery of bottles of water?

A recent Wall Street Journal column by the Numbers Guy (Carl Bialik) tackles deals with the purity of the shipping container used for bottled water–the bottle!

Bialik point s out that “Nestlé claims it offers the lightest half-liter bottles in the U.S. market.”As he usually does, he tackles the statistics, and the numbers, behind the assertions. His quest? To determine if their claims are accurate. I decided to look at a slightly different angle. By reducing the weight of the bottle, what impact does that have on the logistics tail–the supply chain?

Bialik was provided the numbers by Nestlé, and since he trusted their data (gathered by Tragon) I will as well. Let’s assume that everyone uses normal, everyday water, and that any minerals added “for taste” are inconsequential to the issue at hand, the weight. We can be reasonably certain that a half-liter of water weighs a half-kilogram, or 500 grams. This then is our baseline. the lightest bottles (the new Nestlé bottles) weight 12.26 grams, and the heaviest ones weight 25.94 grams.

Simple math shows that reductions from the heaviest bottles (Fiji) to the lightest, will reduce transportation weights by 2.6%. Of course, not every bottle shipped is a Fiji bottle, and Nestlé has not replaced every bottle sold. The actual reduction in weight transported would be less, and thus the environmental and supply chain impact reduction would be less, as well.

What to do? Obviously the first solution is to drink more tap water. If at home, get a water filter. I have a Pur faucet filter, but any would work. Just go check out the selection at your local Wal*Mart or Target.

Might I also suggest we take a page out of the athletes’ book and start using reusable water bottles. Nalgene is the bottle of choice among the swimmers I know, but they are certainly not the only manufacturer. Just be sure to get a high quality water bottle to protect against the leaching of chemicals from the plastics and into the water, and thereby into you.

There are other positive stories coming out, including restaurants finally providing tap-water again, rather than insisting on selling you bottled water. I will work to update these stories on occasion as well. In the meantime, share with me your ways of reducing the logistics footprint, and thus both the environmental impacts, and the costs of logistics!