Poland Spring eyeing debate

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A national effort to get people to stop buying bottled water in favor of turning on their taps hasn’t had an impact at Poland Spring Bottling Co.

Yet.

“We’re watching it carefully,” said Jane Lazgin, spokeswoman for Nestle Waters North America, the parent corporation of the Maine-based bottler. “There could be consequences if people continue to get only one side of the story.”

Over the past few weeks, several municipalities – including San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Calif. and Ann Arbor, Mich. – have adopted resolutions to stop buying bottled water for city functions, citing the unnecessary environmental costs of producing the bottles and transporting the water when they have perfectly fine public water available. The story has made the rounds on several news shows. An environmental advocacy group, Food & Water Watch, has been encouraging people to sign a Web-based pledge to stop buying bottled water.

And the current issue of Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on creative rainmakers, features a long story by Charles Fishman about the economics and psychology of bottled water. In it, Fishman describes bottled water as an indulgence, one that leaves a contrail of consequences, especially in a world where one in six people have no dependable, safe drinking water.

“Bottled water is not a sin. But it is a choice,” he wrote.

A choice worth preserving, said Lazgin.

“We think consumers are making good decisions for themselves and will continue to do that,” she said. “We are going to continue to fill a need for people who want a healthy choice.”

They will do that at two Maine processing plants: the flagship Poland Springs facility where about 350 people work, and a newer plant in Hollis, where a similar number of Mainers are employed. Together, the two plants bottle and distribute more than 65 million cases of Poland Spring water a year.

The company has only grown as bottled water sales nationally have spiked 50 percent between 2001 and 2006. In 2001, the U.S. bottled water market sold 5.1 billion gallons, reporting revenues of $6.88 billion. In 2006, the numbers rose to 8.25 billion gallons and $10.9 billion.

Clearly people are opting to drink something other than tap water, said Lazgin.

“The argument of ‘why drink bottled water when tap water is just as good’ denies that people want other beverages and that there’s a convenience to bottled water,” she said. “It’s not a bottled water versus tap water story, but that’s the way it’s being cast.”

Lazgin notes that Poland Spring uses less plastic in its bottles than carbonated sodas, which still outdistance bottled water sales almost 2 to 1. The Beverage Marketing Corp. cited sales of 8.25 billion gallons of bottled water in the U.S. in 2006 versus 15.1 billion gallons of soft drinks.

Aside from being a less healthy choice because of added sugar and caffeine, soft drinks also require a higher percentage of plastic in their bottles to contain the carbonation. A typical soft drink bottle has 22 to 24 grams of plastic per bottle, while a Poland Spring bottle generally weighs in at 15-18 grams.

In September, the company expects to roll out a new package, called Eco-Shape light bottles, which reduce the plastic content to 12.5 grams. The new bottle has already performed well in test markets in Texas and California.

“The issue should be getting plastic out of landfills and launching good recycling efforts,” rather than targeting the sales of bottled water, said Lazgin.

The Container Recycling Institute estimates only 23 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles are recycled. In Maine, mandatory bottle return means more than 90 percent of plastic bottles are recycled, according to the State Planning Office.

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