Shelburne, Ontario-based Ice River Springs, which was founded in 1995, claims to be the only beverage company in North America that operates a closed-loop recycling facility and makes 100 percent recycled content bottles for its water.
But the company’s husband-and-wife ownership team has experienced quite a learning curve along the way.
A smaller footprint
Beginning as a supplier of spring-fed water, Ice River Springs built its own recycling plant, named Blue Mountain Plastics, in 2010 in Shelburne so it could produce recycled content for its caps and bottles.
“We were looking at ways of reducing our carbon footprint,” Executive Vice President Sandy Gott, who owns the company with her husband, Jamie, says. “And using recycled plastic was a great fit for us.”
At first, the company considered using aseptic packaging. “But we found that a lot of those carton-based packages were not entirely recyclable,” she says.
Then Ice River Springs tried plant-based resin. But bottled water needs a two-year shelf life, Gott says, which polylactic acid (PLA) cannot provide.
Eventually, Ice River Springs officials decided to use recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) for its bottles. “We realized quickly that there were a lot of carbon footprint savings,” she says. “You ended up with a product that had great integrity in terms of top-load strength and basically the same quality that you get with virgin plastic. And you can recycle these bottles over and over again the way that we’re doing it, and you end up with a great quality product.”
Blue Mountain Plastics purchases and processes 85 percent of the PET that’s collected in Ontario’s curbside recycling program. The facility benefits from the good material supply in the area. In addition, it purchases infeed material from other provinces and from nearby areas in the U.S.
The kinds of recyclable material Ice River Springs has received from all its sources have shaped the company’s approach and decisions, Gott says.
Going green (and blue)
In 2014, the company started bottling its Ice River Springs brand water in green bottles, recognizing that it was getting many more green bottles than it had expected. Ice River Springs Green water is distributed nationally in Canada and has some buyers in the U.S. as well. In addition to single-serving bottles, the water also comes in 4-gallon jugs.
“That’s gone quite well for us, to the point where we’re actually now purchasing green bales from other recyclers that are sorting out colors to get enough supply,” Gott says.
Ice River Springs also encountered blue bottles in large quantities. “The clear flake and the blue flake go through together [in the Blue Mountain Plastics plant], and we end up with a slightly blue bottle,” she explains. “We actually do add some color to the bottle, so we can get consistent color throughout the stream.”
The blue bottles go to Ice River Springs’ private-label customers—a segment that constitutes the bulk of the company’s water business.
Capitalizing on a waste stream
The bales Ice River Springs buys from its material sources contain plastics other than PET, so the company developed a way to put those materials to use. It forged a partnership with C.R. Plastic Products Inc., Stratford, Ontario, which buys high-density polyethylene (HDPE), including bottle caps, from Ice River Springs. C.R. uses this postconsumer plastic to make outdoor chairs. HDPE accounts for 7 percent of the material Blue Mountain Plastics receives for processing.
Two years ago, Ice River Springs bought controlling ownership of C.R.
For consistency’s sake
Blue Mountain Plastics takes the baled bottles and turns them into clean flakes. Then, using equipment from American Starlinger-Sahm Inc., Fountain Inn, South Carolina, the bottles are transformed into food-grade resin pellets.
When Ice River Springs started this process in 2010, using rPET in food-contact applications was relatively new. By closing the loop and producing the material that goes into the bottles, the company has achieved greater material consistency—and that’s led to improvements in the injection molding of its preforms as well as in the blow molding of its bottles.
“Before we set up our own facility, we had to go and buy our PET pellets on the open market,” Gott says. “What we found is that there was a lot of inconsistency between batches. So, it was difficult for us to set our injection equipment to really process it the same each time. We could get to about a 50 percent recycled plastic content before we really started to see operational impacts from doing it.
“We decided to build our own recycling facility so we could control the input from start to finish,” she continues. “And we could really tweak and adjust the process specifically for our PET that would be used in a lightweight bottled water product. Our bottles are 8.5 grams, so they’re quite lightweight. To make a 100 percent rPET bottle, you need to have consistent high-quality rPET that was designed for water bottles. That’s what we’ve been able to do by controlling it all ourselves.”
Steps toward sustainability
From 2002 to 2017, Ice River Springs reduced the weight of its bottles by more than half and cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 78 percent. The company also eliminated corrugated trays used to package its bottles and developed a nested packing configuration for the bottles that saves room during transportation.
Today, Ice River Springs owns six bottling plants in Canada and seven in the United States and employs approximately 600 people. Blue Mountain Plastics covers 160,000 square feet in Shelburne.
Gott says the facility recycles more than 400,000 bottles per hour. Blue Mountain Plastics increased its capacity last year, upgrading parts of its line to increase speed.
She declined to specify Ice River Springs’ customers but says they include most of the larger retailers and food service providers in Canada. In the U.S., Ice River Springs is a growing player, serving as one of the top five private-label bottled water companies.
Ice River Springs’ bottling facilities send no waste to landfills—a feat that took two years to accomplish. “Now we get inquiries from our retail partners about how we did that,” Gott says. “And we network with their sustainability departments to share some of our learning and best practices on how to achieve zero waste to landfill. But it’s definitely doable.”
Blue Mountain Plastics continues to face challenges, such as with material yields. “Not all of our suppliers are sorting at the same level,” she says. “We get better yields from some recycling centers than we get from others.”
Ice River Springs also works with associations and governments to push for policies that fit with its philosophy. For example, Gott says the firm tries to discourage use of compostable and biodegradable plastics “because those can contaminate the recycling stream.”
She adds, “So we hope we can be an example to show that closed-loop recycling is very efficient and cost-effective.”
Gott says interest in recycled plastic is consumer driven. “Consumers are concerned about plastics—plastics in the landfills, plastics in our oceans. Recycling into the same container again is really the best solution. Creating value for that postconsumer packaging again and again in a closed-loop system is really the best solution.”
Other bottled water companies use recycled content in some of their products—at rates of 50 percent and some even at 100 percent, she says. “But they’re buying that material from other manufacturers. We are the only ones who are doing it in a closed-loop system.”
Despite its growth, Gott maintains that Ice River Springs is still very much a family company. Four family members work in the business, including two of the Gotts’ children. “We developed a great team of people, some of whom are very talented in plastics, which has been a real help, because a lot of what we’ve been doing is sort of pushing the envelope and learning as we go how best to do this.”