Business View Magazine interviews Sandy Gott of Ice River Springs Water Company, as part of our focus on best practices of American businesses.
“There is some negativity around the environmental impact of bottled water and other beverages packaged in plastic,” muses Sandy Gott who, along with her husband, James, started the Ice River Springs Water Company, “but we have a solution. We are reusing post consumer beverage bottles in a closed loop system; so this is a healthy beverage in an environmentally friendly package.”
It all began in 1995 when the Gotts acquired a property with an abundance of pristine spring water.
“Up until that point in time, we had a number of small businesses, mostly farm related,” Gott continues. “We had beautiful spring water and got into the business of supplying tanker loads of spring water to Toronto. Because our source was listed on the labels, we started to receive calls from people saying, ‘we’ve tasted your spring water and we’d like you to bottle the water for us.’ So, we started with a 5,000-square-foot building that my husband cleared out of our cedar bush on that spring property and starting bottling and selling in one gallon and a two and a half gallon and then it just grew from there.”
Well, perhaps it grew for a specific reason. This was just as Y2K became a fear, and as people worried about a world computer meltdown, they stocked up on water just to be safe. Focusing on private label sales, their water began to ship out faster than it could be bottled.
“The industry grew quite rapidly and we started to expand our footprint,” Gott explains, “Water is a heavy product so logistically we needed to be close to our customers’ distribution centers. Our first expansion was into Western Canada and then we expanded into the United States with our first plant south of the border in North Carolina in 2005 bottling local spring water from Table Rock Mountain. We now have 13 bottling plants in Canada and the U.S., each with their own sources of water.”
From one family on their own farm, the company has expanded to some 600 employees. But that amount of growth also led to a lot of learning. Ice River Springs became the first water company in Canada to manufacture its own preforms, caps and bottles. Then it led the way in terms of lightweighting – creating plastic bottles that were half the weight of an average soda bottle, about eight and a half grams.
“The retail price of bottled water continues to come down,” Gott says, “and we have to continue to invest in the latest technology to increase efficiencies and reduce cost. You have to look at your packaging and continue to innovate and integrate your processes.”
And that is where the Gotts continued to be proactively innovative. As the company grew to encompass all of Canada and the United States east of the Mississippi, and as they began to ship to larger retailers, groceries, drug stores, and big box stores, they needed to continue to offer something the competition could not.
“At heart we are a family company from a farming background. That means we have always been very cognizant of protecting the environment. We farm about 3,000 acres organically as part of our source protection plan. We believe that in taking care of the land, the land will take care of you. We started to look at the environmental footprint of our water business and decided that we wanted to be different. We wanted to make these bottles from 100 percent, recycled, post-consumer packaging.”
Their first foray was to purchase recycled P.E.T. plastic (rPET) from suppliers. What they found was inconsistency between batches that meant there were inefficiencies in processing the recycled plastic. So, Ice River Springs took a leap of faith and built its own recycling facility in Ontario in 2010.
“We invested over 20 million dollars in state of the art equipment from Europe to make our own 100 percent, recycled plastic,” Gott explains enthusiastically, “What we do now is to buy post-consumer baled P.E.T. from Material Recovery Facilities (MRF); post-consumer soda and beverage bottles, condiment bottles, and other types of food packages. After we deliver our bottled water to our customers, we travel a short distance to local MRF’s and bring these bales up to our recycling center in Shelburne, Ontario. In this facility, we sort and wash it before putting it into a purification system that leaves us with food grade pellets which we use to make bottled water from 100 percent recycled plastic for our retailers in Canada and the U.S.”
When they purchase and process the P.E.T. plastic, they invariably find other plastics mixed in the bales. “For example, we get all kinds of caps which are different plastic (hdpe). We invested in a company that uses that cap material to make recycled outdoor furniture; Adirondack chairs, Muskoka chairs, and other associated outdoor furniture, all from recycled material,” says Gott. “There are other products that are up and coming that we plan to make with the remaining materials that are contained in the bales because we don’t want to downcycle; we want to be able to use everything we can. We look at that as further opportunity for our business. It’s somewhat of a diversification but it really comes from a need to find uses for these materials and keep them out of landfill.”
Ice River Springs is the only beverage company in North America that has its own closed-loop recycling system, and it is what really differentiates it from all other suppliers. This makes it very attractive for the private label market, where retailers and consumers care about environmental issues.
“Our view is that there is enough plastic in the world; we need to find ways to reuse it,” says Gott.
“We don’t need to make new plastic. And we find that our retailers appreciate that and they like being able to put their own brand on that bottle and show their consumers that they’re serious about sustainability and about meeting their sustainability goals.” In the coming years, Ice River Springs plans to duplicate its recycling plant in the United States.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Ice River Springs Water Company
WHAT: An environmentally-friendly distributor of bottled water
WHERE: High Springs, Florida