The Quest for Eco-friendly Bottled Drinking Water with Primo to Go
Green Radio
Sean Daily

Episode 114 - The Quest for Eco-friendly Bottled Drinking Water with Primo to Go

Host Sean Daily talks about the process of greening bottled water by using high-quality, mineral-enhanced water and recyclable, compostable, plant-based water bottles with Dave Burke, President and COO of Primo to Go.



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Sean Daily: Hi! Welcome to “Green Talk,” a podcast series from “Green Talk” helps listeners in their efforts to lead more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors, authors, and experts from around the world. We discuss the critical issues facing the global environment today as well as the technologies, products, and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area of your life.

Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of “Green Talk Radio.” This is your host, Sean Daily. We're going to be talking about a very important topic today, which is clean and safe drinking water and bottled water. This is a very important issue. Many of you have seen it in the news lately and for the past few years, it's gotten a lot of airtime. The reason this is an important issue is that the bottled water industry is a $7 billion industry in the US. In 2004, the global consumption of bottled water reached 41 billion gallons, which is up 57% from five years before.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing, increasing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy. The US actually consumes 17% of those 41 billion gallons, which is more than any other country in the world. So this is a very big issue, it has a huge impact on the planet and on our lives. There are also issues with regards to bottled water, their recyclability and things like these.

So before I get any further into that, I want to introduce my guest. He's Dave Burke, he's the President and COO of Primo Bottled Water and Primo To Go. He's responsible for the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of a new environmentally friendly Primo Water. The bottles for which are actually made from plants rather than crude oil, so this is something new.

In this episode, Dave’s going to talk to me and tell you why he feels Primo and buying their variety of bottled water is a smart and green buying decision. Dave actually comes back from a background--he served as the Chief Marketing Officer for Pepsi and Vice-President of Sales Marketing before that for Coca-Cola.

So Dave, welcome to the program.

Dave Burke: Hey, thanks, Sean. Thanks very much for having me.

Sean Daily: It's’ our pleasure. Again, I'm very excited to talk about this issue. There's so many things, it's even hard to know where to dive in so, I guess, we're just start. What I'd like to hear--we'll talk about the issues, I think, related to clean safe drinking water and bottled water later. But why don’t you start off by just telling us about the Primo bottle? I think one of the more intriguing aspects of Primo is the fact that you're using this plastic that’s based on plants and not crude oil. So why don’t we just start there.

Dave Burke: Thanks so much. Here’s what I think your listeners might enjoy, and it's quite simply this - if every plastic beverage bottle in the United States was made from this Ingeo natural plastic that Primo bottles are made from, we would actually save a billion gallons of gasoline a year. I know that sounds like a big, big number and even a number that’s--if you will--somewhat hard to believe, but it's actually footnoted on our website. It's something we're excited to bring to the marketplace.

Sean Daily: Interesting. So now, this Ingeo, is this something that Primo, yourselves, developed the technology behind this or are other companies using it or is it just you?

Dave Burke: Yes. The Ingeo is actually a special resin that was formed by NatureWorks. NatureWorks is a company that’s a subsidiary of Cargill and we are the exclusive users of Ingeo relative to bottled water. You mentioned, Sean, very appropriately, how big this segment is, it's $7 billions and some would even have it as big as $10 billions. What a lot of folks don’t realize is even with all of the issues that you outlined that are out there, this bottled water category in the United States is still growing at 10% a year. Said in another way, it adds about a billion dollars worth of retail value year after year after year.

The interesting thing to ask when we were thinking about how could we help in a different way, the three big consumer trends of resealability, portability, and healthy or potable beverages, those trends aren't going to go away anywhere. They're not going to disappear and consumers have drive, as you know, virtually everything in our society.

The unfortunate about the size of the category, as you know, is all of those plastic bottles are made from crude oil, much with foreign crude oil actually. For us, we thought, we ought to be able to solve this problem or hope to solve this problem a different way. Why don’t we go to the beginning of life rather than tackling the issues that, frankly, had been difficult to tackle. Therefore, our bottle, as you said it, is actually made from plants not crude oil.

Sean Daily: That’s interesting, I mean, it's an interesting take on. It's certainly important. I think, the issue needs to be tackled from all sides. It's fascinating to hear of a company that is going to tackle it, as you said, on the front end, at the beginning. So I'm just curious, too, about has Primo gotten involved on the backend in terms of doing any kinds of educational campaigns or things like that? This is to educate people about recycling the bottles or how these are reused or anything along those lines on the sort of--I won't say the graveside of the cradle-to-grave part, you know, on the backend of a post consumption.

Dave Burke: I have a friend who might say, “Can you call it “the grateful dead?” It's just kind of a clever way to put it. The sure answer is yes, and actually, we've done more than, I guess, an attempt to tackle it. The other side of our company--if you will--is Primo Water in three- and five-gallon containers. The unique thing about us is those containers, you can actually buy from your favorite grocery store, take it and use it on your water cooler at home. Then when you bring it back to the grocery store, we give you a ticket and you get 50% off your next bottle. So all of our bottles, our three- and five-gallon, 100% are recycled and zero percent end up in a landfill. That’s actually the way we started our company, Sean.

Sean Daily: On the larger scale bottles.

Dave Burke: Yes, exactly. On the three- and five-gallon bottles, and that business continues to resonate with consumers that, “Hey, I get it. I can enjoy the great taste of Primo and I get to buy it where I buy my groceries. I can bring it back and I'm confident that this bottle will never end up in a landfill and get reused,” which is the good news.

Specific to the bottle I described a moment ago that’s made from plants and not crude oil, we actually have three end-of-life options today, right this minute. It can be recycled. It can be biodegraded if it is in a commercial composting facility. Let me pause on that second one for a minute. By no means would we suggest that a consumer actually throw it in their backyard. I think there are others--in Europe, they tried to do this with some juice beverages as an example and suggests that that’s actually not the right way to dispose of a bottle. It needs to be in a commercial composting facility. The really cool story is when it is, it’ll actually biodegrade in about 80-90 days--give or take--and turn it back into inorganic substances. The third option is it can be incinerated and turn into thermal energy, and that can be done today as we speak.

It's actually a great question, Sean. We also realize we are very much at the beginning of bio-resin [xx] categories in the US. So we're working with the recycling industry and environmental experts to improve and expand on these end-of-life options. This is way bigger than a bio-resin conversation, but we certainly stand for recycling, we’d like more recycling options. We know that four out of ten Americans don’t even have curbside service in the US today, which is hard to believe. We certainly stand for more recycling of everything and more often that we use.

Sean Daily: OK. Now, if you don’t mind, I was going to switch off just a little bit here, still sticking with bottled water. One of the other reasons that the bottled water industry has gotten a black eye of late has been with regards to some of the testing that has been done on the quality of various bottled waters, some of the larger product lines that are out there. In some cases, it's come to like that, for example, the quality of the bottled water that you're paying $3 for whatever it is, is equal or even inferior to what would come out of the tap, in some cases. Of course, that depends on where you are and your tap.

But I'm just curious about Primo, in regards to where are you, guys, sourcing your water? Is it municipal water? What's the deal there?

Dave Burke: Yes, it's a great question. We start with municipal water, that’s absolutely true. I think the bigger question is, “What do you afterwards?” So does your favorite beer or softdrink, by the way, which is kind of interesting, but to me the question is really what is done to it afterwards. For Primo, that answer is, we take our particles down to the lowest possible standard that’s available; quite frankly way, way lower than municipal water standards. Then, we add back an enriched mineral package just enough to give it a preferred taste.

I think, you know, I sort of alluded to this consumer trend to continue to fuel the bottled water category, those trends really are heading towards taste. I have a 14- and a 16-year-old--I don’t know about you, but when I grew up, it was the water out of the fountain in my elementary school, in my night [sp] public school in Northern Virginia. My kids can delineate water today, and we got a whole generation that can actually determine taste. We wanted to make sure we absolutely had our taste profile nailed, and we actually went out, Sean, and did a 6,000 blind taste test. We [xx] on blind, and we won three out of four of those taste tests against the leading spring water in the country and we won four out of five against tap water. So taste is an incredibly important indicator here, and we think we got that part nailed.

Sean Daily: Certainly, it is important and as a full disclaimer, you guys, sent two bottles of Primo to us for this podcast to check out the product. I'm actually drinking it right not as I'm doing this podcast, and my engineer is drinking the other bottle. It has what I look for in bottled water, which is I don’t want to taste anything, I wanted it to just taste like clean water. So I'll definitely give you, guys, props for that. At least to my taste, it's completely subjective, but it just has that sort of clean taste, so I'm not tasting anything funky.

I'm wondering about how you achieved that. I know that sometimes--I've been told in the past by people who are experts in this that sometimes the cleaner waters, you can associate the taste with what's in it. There's no way to really determine or make that kind of distinction or connection between quality and taste of it. I guess, what you're saying is supporting this, which is taste is it's own vector, it's own area separate from the health issues and things like that. Is that true?

Dave Burke: Yes, I would say that’s right. It's funny, to your point, it's tough but not impossible to get a water down with essentially zero parts that a human tongue can determine it, it's certainly possible. The interesting thing when you do that is a lot of people don’t like it. To your point, they actually do want a tiny bit of mineral taste, and I think you described it as crisp, but we get that phrase clean quite a bit, taste clean to me. The reality it's going to taste great, and clearly, it has to survive not just government standards in terms of safety but the highest possible. We certainly would intend to take a leadership position in that regard.

Sean Daily: That’s interesting. So it's actually the presence of--and I'm not going to call them, it's not obviously not a contaminant--but the presence of something not related to water. In this case, the mineral is actually what many people associate with a normal or clean taste.

Dave Burke: That’s right.

Sean Daily: OK. This is the experience I've had as I've tasted water that didn’t have the mineral in it, it tasted funny to me. But it was more sort of “clean” in that it was more pure water, but it didn’t taste quite right.

Dave Burke: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Sean Daily: Yes, it's very interesting. I don’t know what they do with it but I know—but again, this is completely subjective, your own mileage may vary out there—but when I go to Europe--I don’t know if there's a different flavor profile, taste profile that exists in different parts of the world. But I know that a lot of the French bottle water, for example, I don’t like Evian and Vittel and things like that. There's a particular taste to it. I'm not questioning their cleanliness or anything, but there's a taste to it that I know and I think in that market, it probably goes over well, I don’t know whether it does in this market. Is that true that there are different flavor profiles?

Dave Burke: I think there is. I've actually never shared this with anyone before, but here's a thought your listeners might enjoy. If you really want to determine a water’s taste--you know, kind of do it in your own taste test, so to speak, on your kitchen table or what have you--do it at room temperature. It's very much like wine, you want to involve your nose in that. What you'll find with some popular waters particularly of a spring background, they will have an odor to it which comes out at about 55-65 degrees, and some other waters, too. When you said, you're [xx] pure water maybe you think of that because that’s typically what you'll find. But in order to truly measure taste of water, stick it at room temperature in a couple of different vials and I'll bet you, your average family will have a different take.

Sean Daily: Yes, that’s very true. This is completely outside the tangent, but I'm glad you said that about the wine because I always have friends--I live in wine country here--and I always have friends that--I'm not an expert, one thing I've learned is you don’t take white wine and chill it past a certain point. At that point, you can hardly even taste the quality of the wine. But I always have friends that sticking in their refrigerator and saying, “Oh, this is just a little too warm.” Really, just a little bit lower than room temperature is ideal for white wines.

Dave Burke: Yes, you’ve got it right. That’s exactly right.

Sean Daily: So moving on, I'm also curious now. So obviously, there's two parts of your business - you’ve got the larger refillable bottled waters, the kind people bring in and refill at refilling station or things like that. Then you’ve got the single-serve bottles. Are you, guys, right now, with the single-serve bottles--let's focus on that for a minute--is that a nationwide availability that you’ve got with the Primo product there?

Dave Burke: Yes, thanks, Sean. Again, we're excited to do this discussion with you today. We're brand new with the single-serve bottles. We actually started earlier in the month of April, so we're not even a month old. We're in 40 states today right this minute. The good folks at Kroger, they have 2,400 grocery stores across the country, out west you might know them as Fred Meyer up in the Portland, Oregon area or Ralph’s down on the Southern California area or Smith’s out in Utah. Those are all the Kroger family stores. They have Primo water today, Primo To Go as we call it.

The other thing, you didn’t ask this but I'd like to hit on this and it really goes to our notion of  living green and of being environmentally responsible. We never thought that the consumer should have to make a sacrifice. While I certainly wouldn’t call it any other brand, the notion of buying a hybrid vehicle today means I have to spend a whole lot more money out of my pocket to do that. The notion of buying compact fluorescent light bulb means I have to spend quite a bit more than an average light bulb. I'm happy to do it but it involves sacrifices as a consumer. For us, you can buy a case of Primo today right this minute for $5 and we wanted to be affordable and available right out of the gate day one.

A lot of “marketing experts,” Sean, say we ought to premium priced our product and make it a niche and all that. Niche is not consistent with our image and what our mission is as a company. We want to make this--again, as I've said--available and affordable to everybody. We will be more available this summer rolling up to your most well known grocery stores and mass merchandisers are coming up here in June. We're really excited, we're up to a terrific start, and we hope people give us a look.

Sean Daily: Yes, great. Well, we're going to take a break right here, Dave, and we'll be right back. Everybody hang tight, we'll be right back with “Green Talk Radio.” We're talking about clean and safe drinking water and bottled drinking water with Dave Burke, who is the President and COO of Primo and Primo To Go. We'll be right back on “Green Talk Radio.”

[podcast break]

Sean Daily: Hey, everybody. Welcome back to “Green Talk Radio.” This is Sean Daily, and my guest, again, is Dave Burke, and we're talking about bottled water. Dave is with Primo, he's the COO and President of Primo and Primo To Go. Dave, we we're talking about the bottles used in the water earlier in the broadcast and I wanted to just drill in a little bit. We've been talking about the bottle, but I was realizing there's more. There's the label and there's the cap. Are those also something that’s 100 %--are these non-petroleum based as well? What's the deal with those?

Dave Burke: Yes. I think, Sean, you shot a really good question. Today right now when you purchase our case pack of Primo water, the bottle itself, just the bottle is made from Ingeo natural plastic, from a renewable plastic from plants. So today right this minute, the label what we call the closure or the cap and the outer packaging still is made from traditional petroleum-base material. I think the exciting news is we've got developmental work underway on all those fronts - the label, the shrink film, the closure.

I want to pause and challenge our listeners to think about this for a second. When we get to that moment where 100 % of the packaging is made from renewable resources and those resources ultimately are recycled, and think about it being bottled water, we actually could say we have the perfect product for the very, very first time. Your grandkids, my grandkids could actually be drinking out of a completely renewable, sustainable package in 2070 from plants grown in America way, way back in 2005. That vision, at least with us, is not that far away; it's exciting for us to think about. So the short answer is, we're getting close to being 100 % packaging from renewable resource.

Sean Daily: OK. I guess, just to give fair time to other options that are out there for our listeners that are listening in today, another way that people are going is pulling out of the tap and using filtration systems in some cases. There's a lot of controversy with regards to many filtration systems about whether they do their jobs or not. So I'll leave that up to you, the listener, to do your own research on that, but certainly, it's something to investigate.

First of all, it's very important to get your water tested, no matter what, before you go out and buy a filtration system. You need to know what you're trying to filter; the tap water in various areas varies widely. You need to know what contaminants, if any, exist before you start buying a filtration system to make sure that that filtration system actually is capable of removing those contaminants. So something important to mention.

Then, regardless of whatever water you’ve got, in terms of the day-to-day carry around, there are products such as those from Sigg and then KleanKanteen, which is OK. Those are two companies that use basically, metal bottles—aluminum--it's an impermeable alloy, and so it's another way to go. Those are other options there.

But again, you and I were talking before the podcast is that, this isn't really neither or issue, a good example is I, at home, tend to carry around the Sigg bottle and we have a filtration system and such. But when I travel, I can't refill that easily, I don’t have my filtration system, it's just not convenient for me. So for example, at the airport, they're going to take away your bottle water as anybody who travels knows very well. At that point, you're buying bottled water or you're dehydrating.

I think it's important to have these other choices, because regardless of you're feeling, if you're 100 % bottled water person or if you're somebody who's using it supplementally, whatever it is, I think, we all want to have better choices for the container that is being used and the source of that container and its effect on the planet. So I think also another important thing here is to mention, we've been talking about the other guys and the option exactly what that is. I know that that goes by PET. Can you tell us exactly what a traditional PET bottle, what that means, what that is, and where they come from so everybody understands?

Dave Burke: Sure. It's actually an acronym PET, believe it or not. Sean, I'm not a Chemistry major so I'm going to butcher this, but it stands for polyethylene terephthalate.

Sean Daily: That’s better than I could have done. [laughter]

Dave Burke: I was an old high school football player so I'd better tell you what my IQ is. But that essentially is what every clear plastic bottle that you and your listeners have ever held in your hand, it's essentially all polyethylene terephthalate. The fundamental source of that is foreign crude oil and that’s where those bottles come from.

Sean Daily: I understand that the concern there is that it's said to lead to something called DEHA which is a known carcinogen, if it's used more than once. So particularly, there are concerns with regards of the reuse of those bottles.

Dave Burke: Yes. That’s a tough topic obviously. I know the FDA came out earlier this week highlighting all of the products that was in and that again reiterating its safety. The most important thing is that people are drinking more water. You hear about four or five people walking around are dehydrated at any point in time. I know that because weren’t a service economy anymore or we're drinking too much of our favorite coffee or what, I'm not sure, but we should be drinking more water, period.

I'll stay on the sidelines where the BTA is safe or unsafe. It's been in our marketplace, as you know, for the better part of four and a half decades in a wide, wide variety of products in your home and in your work life and in your food life.

Sean Daily: Yes, and to give a fair time to that, if you don’t mind, we've talked about that with Nature Path, Elizabeth Large on the show, and we talked about bisphenol-A, (BPA). Basically, it's a polycarbonate and it's used by companies like Nalgene in the form of its brand name Lexan, and that is said to leach the bisphenol--A. It is said to mimic the hormone estrogen which is said [xx] disruptor which allegedly cause chromosome damage and hormone disruption. That’s a view that’s widely held in the scientific and medical community but there has, of course, as always, contention with that.

Also to be fair--and we've talked about the Nalgene aspect on this show before with regards to the Lexan BPA issue--it's important to note also that Nalgene has recently--they’ve got a big PR blackeye through this process. They have now developed, in response, apparently a BPA-free line of bottles and I wanted to mention that to our listeners to, something I just found out about recently.

Dave Burke: Sean, I should say if I didn’t make it clear, there is no BPA in Primo To Go.

Sean Daily: That was what I was going to ask you. What about on the other side? Primo To Go, I take that is that both the smaller bottles, the individual size as well as the larger three and five gallons?

Dave Burke: The Ingeo natural resins--it's a great question--today is what we use for the smaller bottle, the Primo To Go as we call it. We actually continue to explore ways possibly becoming--I guess, this will be somewhat of an announcement, [laughs] I was unprepared for this--but we're looking at ways to possibly use the same natural resin for a larger container like a three- or a five-gallon bottle which will be really, really special for us. It sounds simple, just make it in or bay or a container. I wish the world of manufacturing was that simple, but we're going to go down that path and we're going to try a couple of different things.

Sean Daily: OK. So for right now, in the three- and five-gallon, you're using the traditional bottle tapes that are…is that right?

Dave Burke: We are using traditional polycarbonate on our three- and five-gallon bottles, yes.

Sean Daily: OK. We'll be interested to follow that and hear about the developments there. I imagine, I think, it sounds like Primo, this is another tool sort of in your arsenal that make drinking bottled water potentially--as you put it before--something that is safe for both humans and for the earth. So you, guys, are clearly a leader in the industry right now with what you’ve done on the single serving, so we'll be interested to follow future developments on that side.

Dave Burke: All right, I appreciate that. Our hope is that if you pursue great taste and doing something good for the environment at the same time as opposed to either or, that a consumer, your listener, would certainly take a look at Primo To Go. It's a pretty special deal.

Sean Daily: Great. Do you have any other tips or information or anything you'd like to leave our listeners with today before we sign off?

Dave Burke: Drink more water, that’d be it.

Sean Daily: Yes. We are a chronically dehydrated society, that’s true. A lot of studies say that and you would actually mused about that earlier about why that might be. One of the things I've heard--I'm no expert--but they’ve done studies where the symptoms of thirst don’t come forward. Our bodies aren't very well prepared to indicate thirst to us in an early warning system. So actually, what happens is often, it comes up as hunger, so that also can lead to chronic overeating because thirst will initially comes forth as being hunger. It's not until you're already completely dehydrated that you actually get the signal of being thirsty and dry mouth and things like that.

Dave Burke: That’s absolutely very true, Sean. I coached [xx] football and we're telling our 11 and 12-year-olds to drink water and lots of water before a game. You know, a 12-year-old boy, once they're halfway through and they're dying of thirst, they're not going to tell you. It's too late at that point, so it's a great point.

Sean Daily: Yes. So it has to be really proactive and not reactive especially with water. Yes, great. Again, my guest today has been Dave Burke, he's the President and COO of Primo and Primo To Go, the company that has developed a line of bottled water that is based on plants and not oil with the containers.

Dave, we really appreciate you being on the program today.

Dave Burke: Sean, thanks so much. Thank you for having me.

Sean Daily: Thanks as always to everyone listening in today. Remember, for more free on demand podcasts, articles, videos, and other information related to living a greener lifestyle, visit our website at We’d also love to hear your comments, feedback, and questions. Send us an email at [email protected].

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