Belu Water: Why using plastic bottles can make a positive impact

David Balhuizen at ethical water brand Belu explains the catalysts and barriers around its latest packaging innovations.

For us to make an impact, we need to provide where people use it the most

If you met David Balhuizen at all during World Water Week, you might have seen him carrying a melon. “It’s a really fun way of celebrating World Water Week,” Belu’s head of operations tells me. “It’s a great talking point – everyone asks you why you’re carrying a watermelon around.”

I can’t help asking why. Millions of girls around the world spend hours carrying water in jerry cans that are often twice the weight of one watermelon, he explains – which is 92% clean, fresh water, unlike the dirty water they are carrying.

But when he’s not bearing large fruit, Balhuizen’s role is to help bring Belu’s bottled water to the market with the lowest environmental impact possible. Belu donates 100% of profits to the UK charity WaterAid. Belu’s carbon hot spot is its raw material sourcing, i.e. the glass and plastic in its packaging, which is why it’s focusing much of its innovation efforts here. The water firm recently developed the UK’s first sparkling water bottle made with 50% rPET, and last year its ‘Ethical glass’ – a bottle that is 16% lighter than its predecessor. Several brands have also adopted this bottle, allowing Belu to make an impact across the industry.

Not only that, but the water firm has just announced a partnership with the Cobra Foundation, creating a specially designed co-branded bottle, which will help bring Belu’s water to more restaurants across the UK.

Balhuizen tells me more about the issues around packaging, and Belu’s mission to make an impact.

David Belhuizen

Recent statistics show that bottled water is 2,000 times more intensive than tap water. Why did you choose bottled water to make an impact?

Many years ago our founder collaborated in the ‘Tap’ campaign to promote tap water as the most sustainable alternative. But the focus around bottled water is because this is an easy product to do something positive with, and the bottle water market is £1.8bn in the UK alone. To do something positive with all those pounds, we wanted to put something in the market that is a positive alternative. When quality and price are equal, consumers can make a positive choice. Therefore, if they have to drink bottled water, at least there is a better way of choosing one.

Bottled water is a growing market in the UK. How does Belu compare to other brands with a similar vision?

There are other waters that contribute to charity and water brands who try to do the best things with their packaging- e.g. Buxton has a very lightweight bottle - but there is no-one that combines the two. We are the only one in the UK water industry that use 50% rPET in our plastic at the moment.

Does this come at a price?

The use of rPET comes at a premium but we do not pass this on to customers because we believe it’s the right thing to use. We make choices that could be seen as anti-commercial in order to protect our ethics. Paying more for our raw materials is a way of saying we take our responsibility first, and take our profit second.

Why do you use plastic packaging, and have you considered other alternatives e.g. water in a box?

We are trying to look at all packaging options: water in a box is in fact one of them. At the moment it’s not in the mainstream, and for us to make the biggest impact, we need to provide options that people will use most. For something to be sustainable it needs to be a positive alternative to an existing product and made available to a wide customer base.

We currently make the most inroads in our core glass market – selling to restaurants, bars and hotels. That’s why we introduced Ethical Glass: the lightest weight bottle for still and sparkling natural mineral water, reducing our carbon footprint by 16%.

What are the benefits of not keeping this to yourself?

It’s also used by other water brands; therefore we have a positive impact not only on our footprint but also on those who use Ethical Glass. A royalty from that bottle goes to Water Aid, even if other brands sell it.

Where did this innovation come from?

It all starts with a desire and a passion to do something better. There are certain things you need to weigh up – what is feasible with the current technology and what the questions are that nobody yet has asked. I found out that our bottles get heavier and heavier over the years because the moulds which they come out of grow bigger and bigger. That is unacceptable; who is paying attention to that?

Why is a bottle that should be 450g suddenly coming out the factory at 480g? That’s 30g extra glass. That’s when I started to investigate and ask the questions about the process for reducing this.

What were the barriers?

The barriers are internal carbonation levels– if you have a carbonated product, you need to make sure the structure of the bottle makes it safe to use, so it doesn’t blow up on the line, or worse, with customers. There are certain things that you can’t do, but technology always moves on so the question that you ask today, might get a different answer then when you asked the same question three years ago.

Especially with rPET it’s the case. The technology in processing recycled plastic and turning that into new usable PET has just moved so quickly. The rPET that we use is made by some of the most advanced suppliers in the UK. We think it’s an absolutely fantastic result.

Can you tell the difference?

You can see a slight colour difference, but only if you compare the bottles very closely. In my experience, it’s not something consumers pay so much attention to. We try and put the story at the forefront explain that these are UK-used plastic bottles coming back to you to save emissions.

Do you have more packaging innovations on the horizon?

We do. We’re looking at how to increase the rPET content. There’s something we’re working on that will drastically reduce the carbon footprint of water delivery – but it’s something I can’t really talk about yet. It’s a trial.

According to your latest report, 71% of your emissions come from the raw material stage. As well as innovating packaging, how do you offset this to become carbon neutral?

Currently we’re investing in an Indian run river hydropower project. This is a local project where our investments are the only ones for the year. It gives them the ability to invest in clean technology.

Second to that is the social impact. This is one of the first projects in India that is verified to the Social Carbon Standard, which doesn’t only deliver clean tech but also delivers social impact. This means they measure how many jobs are created, but also the project provides support and education to very poor physically disabled children in special schools. They don’t only have their own business generating clean energy but the benefit of the investment gets put into the local community.

What about sourcing the water itself?

Out of all the soft drinks, water is the least carbon-intensive compared to other soft drinks. We don’t need to source any raw materials in terms of oranges or sugar cane. If you looked at the carbon footprint of sugary soft drinks, the impact of their packaging– although in absolute terms probably the same– is at a lower percentage as a whole because their overall carbon footprint is much higher because they use more complex ingredients that require more energy in sourcing and manufacturing. For us, the water comes out of the ground, it is pure and stable within its mineral analysis for many years. It goes from the ground straight to the bottle, minus a few filters for dirt and debris.The water itself is an incredibly carbon–light product.

The sentiment near the end of the report is that water is just the beginning.

Water is the starting point for everything to do with life. It’s not always a happy story – with acute human suffering for those without access to safe clean water, all problems compound when water is not available. We need a constant reminder that water is the first basic need.

This is a great example of WaterAid not just investing in clean water but in clean technology: in a BioGas café in Ethopia, we met eight women who previously didn’t have jobs or status in their society. In this cafe they get the experience and empowerment of running this project where food waste and human waste is collected together to create methane biogas and they use that gas to cook with. The profits of the food they cook keep the center running. They have a garden, people can use toilets for a very small fee and showers - people come off the streets getting everything that they need. On top of that, it creates social value with a place where people can catch up, chat and build a sense of community. For us it was really important to prove that the business model of social enterprise is a sustainable one.