Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Boxed Water Is Better is ... water, in a box instead of a bottle. But its main virtue is that Boxed Water is shipped better.
Boxed Water Is Better is a great name for a brand. After all, the sell is right there in the title. Since 2009, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company has been elbowing its way into the $144 billion global market for bottled water—make that "convenience water." Maybe you've seen it: As of this week, shoppers can buy Boxed Water at Costco wholesale supermarkets, certain Whole Foods and Kroger's groceries, plus other retail and specialty outlets in 22 states and Canada, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico.
The name is not just fitting, it's precise. As much as the company is selling water, it's also selling boxes, or rather, selling its customers on paper over plastic. The Boxed Water carton may be unfamiliar to folks, but the entire thing is recyclable, down to the cap; 76 percent of the product is made using paper from certified, sustainably managed forests.
"Definitely a water company," says Jeremy Adams, vice-president for marketing at Boxed Water Is Better, when I ask him whether Boxed Water is a paper company. The water is purified through reverse osmosis and ultraviolet filtration. Still, if virtue is one of the company's main selling points, then the name needs a tweak: Boxed Water Is Shipped Better.
For one truck's worth of bottled water, Boxed Water can deliver 26 trucks' worth of cartoned water. Here's how that works out: The company sends its cartons to its filling plants empty. A single pallet can hold some 35,000 empty, flat-packed Boxed Water cartons. Only after they're shipped to the filling station are the cartons filled.
At the plant, one truck's worth of empty cartons can be filled to supply the 26 trucks. The space-savings ratio may be even more favorable when comparing the rectangular, easily stacked cartons with their rounded, pre-formed plastic water bottle counterparts.
Presently, Boxed Water has just one filling plant, so the efficiency gains on shipping water are still minimal. But the company plans to open at least one new plant this next year, according to Adams, and establish a schedule for opening more. Later in the year, Boxed Water will announce new accounts that will give the cartons a national retail presence.
"Everyday choices can make a big difference," Adams says. "Consumers really understand there’s a challenge with bottled water."
Water utilities in many if not most cities would like nothing more than for bottled water to disappear. D.C. Water, for example, has mounted a broad campaign in recent years to convince D.C. residents to drink tap water, in part by asking restaurants and retailers to advertise themselves as refill stations for personal Nalgenes or what have you. While bottled water is easily the most wasteful indulgence in the first world, it's also not going anywhere. Convenience water is a $24 billion market in the U.S., where more than 1 billion plastic water bottles are shipped annually.
Boxed Water makes no bones about using municipal water (which is no different than some bottled-water companies). A half-liter of Boxed Water goes for $1.49; the company made $1.5 million in revenue last year and implemented a professional sales group to try to ramp up its growth. "We'll be announcing new retailers around the time we're hitting shelves," Adams says.
Cities should be eager to see new Boxed Water regional plants emerge. The greater the number of filling plants, the shorter the distance that trucks filled with water will need to travel. Paper cartons collapse down in a way that plastic bottles don't, and some plastics don't recycle easily or at all.
Sure, Boxed Water is selling people on a lifestyle product that everyone should rely on way less. But Boxed Water Is Better may in fact be an improvement on bottled water. Not just in terms of sustainability, but in the way that a highly disposable product is produced, packaged, and shipped.
"We’re an impermanent product. At the end of the day, 75 percent of it is paper," Adams says. "It's not made to last forever. Whereas 100 percent of a PET water bottle is going to be in a landfill for a thousand years."