Key Takeaway: Independent drink makers and brands like Ever & Ever are embracing aluminum as a more sustainable alternative in order to influence change, despite increasing competition from public companies.
The iconic scene from the 1967 film The Graduate predicted a “great future” in plastics. Over half a century later, companies big and small can’t run away from the plastic menace fast enough.
One of the latest additions to the anti-plastics crusade is Ever & Ever, an aluminum-packaged water bottle brand that launched this summer, promising to be the more environmentally conscious choice that leverages material more recyclable than plastic.
“Aluminum can end up back on the shelf in as little as 60 days after it’s been recycled,” Jane Prior, CMO of Vita Coco, parent company of Ever & Ever, told Karma in an interview in New York.
The bottled water’s name refers to aluminum’s promise to live on forever if all recycling procedures are followed perfectly. Typically aluminum cans are recycled in a “closed loop,” as opposed to glass and plastic products that are “downcycled” into road pavements or carpet fiber, according to Aluminum Can KPI Report.
Drink companies are seeking to add sustainable packaging, as they respond to growing consumer concerns about mounting plastic waste. Aluminum is seen as an alternative to plastic bottles, less than a third of which are recycled, according to the 2017 U.S. National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report. Dire warnings, such as those that the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish by 2050, have heightened concerns and the search for solutions.
Aluminum beverage cans are far the most recycled and recyclable beverage container on the market today, with about half of cans recycled in 2017. Beer bottlers have experimented with aluminum bottles in recent years, and WasteDive says about 4 billion will be produced this year in the U.S. That’s a tiny fraction of the 100 billion plastic bottles used in the U.S. in 2014, according to Container Recycling Institute data on PlasticOceans.org.
Still, 45.2 billion cans ended up in a landfill last year, according to Aluminum Association data.
All Market Inc., the parent company of Vita Coco, has sharpened its sustainability focus in recent years, before pushing into aluminum.
Last June it acquired Runa, which makes its energy drink from a leaf grown Ecuador, expanding its portfolio of natural drinks. Earlier this year, Vita Coco partnered with Lonely Whale, a clean ocean non-profit co-founded four years ago by Entourage actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier and film producer Lucy Sumner. Ever & Ever was launched in June.
“As we moved from being a single-brand company to a portfolio of brands, we realized we had to take a harder look at sustainability,” Prior says, noting the company’s impact efforts up until that point were focused on communities where they sourced coconut water. “We realized we needed to learn more about sustainability on a macro level.”
“What we know about Gen Z is that they expect brands to be activists, to lean in with them on these environmental and social issues that really matter to them.”
Prior says Ever & Ever was a “passion project” that emerged from a collaboration with Lonely Whale.
“What we liked about them was how practical they were about providing solutions for consumers and enable them to make changes,” Prior explained. “They are not preaching about what you should or shouldn’t do.”
Lonely Whale primarily focuses on media and communications, aiming to change the hearts and minds about ocean sustainability and pollution. Over the last few years they ran a series of social media-friendly, celebrity-packed campaigns called #HydrateLike and #StopSucking.They have found that the public awareness of the issues has grown significantly over the past several years.
Now it’s up to the corporations and governments to listen and take action.
“We know the millennials care deeply about the ocean. What we know about Gen Z is that they expect brands to be activist, to lean in with them on these environmental and social issues that really matter to them,” says Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, in an interview with Karma. “You see an entire generation asking corporations to do more, and the corporations we are working with are responding in kind.”
Ever & Ever water, both sparkling and still, is now primarily distributed in New York and Hawaii. It’s planning to expand nationally in the first quarter of 2020.
While researching its target market, Ever & Ever found consumers who grasped the value and advantages of aluminum, 65% were likely to purchase it. Millennial moms were particularly responsive.
“The core audience who this concept resonated with were millennial moms: they live on the go, they don’t constantly have everything at their disposal,” Prior said. “When we talked to them, the preference is for glass and plastic. Once this consumer understood the implications of using aluminum as an alternative, it really resonated with them.”
While the intention behind the brand may be to give consumers a practical, more environmentally conscious alternative to plastic while they’re on the go, it’s unclear how Ever & Ever will compete with bigger brands and their plans to reduce single-use plastic reliance.
And initiatives by small brands may be a drop in the ocean compared to big players and polluters who continue to rely heavily on plastic packaging.
Coca Cola is also planning to sell its Dasani water in aluminum cans and bottles in response to growing public awareness of plastic waste and declining sales.
PepsiCo, Inc. also announced in June it plans to package Aquafina water in aluminum cans in U.S. food service outlets and test these in retail starting in 2020. The company estimates the moves will “eliminate more than 8,000 metric tons of virgin plastic and approximately 11,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.” By 2025, PepsiCo’s wants to make 100% of its packaging “recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable.”
Nestle, starting with Poland Spring, announcing in June it plans to transition to 25% rPET across the U.S. portfolio by 2021 and 50% rPET by 2025.
The Promise of Circular Economy
Even if the big corporations move aggressively to remove plastic packaging and millennial moms and consumers at large respond, there is still the obstacle of recycling infrastructure and education.
“It (aluminum packaging) lends itself to the concept of circular economy,” Prior said. “Because if it’s disposed of correctly, it live on forever.”
Disposing correctly is still an “if.”
Increasingly, it’s not about corporate awareness or lack of more conscious products — it’s the lack of infrastructure to dispose of these products properly or public awareness about proper recycling methods.
Consumers need to know where to go and how to recycle correctly.
“Aluminum bottles and cans are still not being recovered at 100%,” said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration at the Recycling Partnership, in an interview with Karma in Oakland. Recycling Partnership a non-profit that receives funding from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Amazon and other industry players.
“They are still ending up in the trash because the system is not set up to recover it,” he said.
While the aluminum beverage can is by far the most recycled and recyclable beverage container on the market today, more can be done to increase can recycling in the United States. In 2018 45.2 billion cans ended up in a landfill, according to Aluminum Association data.
There is still a long road ahead to make sure these brands have a long-lasting environmental impact.
For Ever & Ever, getting consumers to think about their choices is enough.
At a small Ever & Ever launch event at a boutique hotel in Williamsburg earlier this fall, the Lonely Whale shared details about their collaboration and screened their #HydrateLike campaign video. Someone in the audience asked how they can do more to help the planet.
“Our ambition is to inspire that conversation and question the decisions they make,” Prior said.