Reefill Wants to Get New Yorkers Off Bottled Water. What's Wrong With This Picture?

©. Reefill

New York City water doesn't need to be filtered and citizens have already paid for it, that's what.

At first glance, TreeHugger should loveReefill, pitched as "a cheap and easy alternative to bottled water, providing unlimited access to chilled, filtered tap water on the go." It got a lot of coverage when it launched on Indiegogo last year and can now be found in a few spots in Greenwich Village. According to TechCrunch, it has interesting and green roots.

The founders, Jason Pessel, Andrew Betlyon, and Patrick Connorton, first worked on the idea during the 2015 Think Beyond Plastic accelerator but they’ve been lifelong friends. They bootstrapped the first few stations and won grants from NYU and the 2016 New York StartUp! Business Plan Competition.

Water and plastic waste

© Reefill

We do go on about plastic waste and, as Reefill notes,

50 billion single-use bottles are produced each year, of which 38 billion go unrecycled. That means millions of tons of plastic are being dumped into our oceans and landfills every year... it takes about 17 million barrels of oil to make all of that plastic. And we’re not even counting the oil wasted from trucking those bottles around after they’re filled!

Instead, Reefill is setting up stations in local businesses where one can fill their water bottle with cold, filtered water, as often as you want for the small price of $ 1.99 per month. What could we possibly object to about that?

For one thing, Reefill implies that their water is somehow better than New York water out of the tap.

Reefill stations use carbon and sediment filters that meet the performance standards of NSF certification 42 (meaning they reduce specific aesthetic or non-health-related contaminants, including chlorine, taste, and odor) and NSF certification 53 (meaning they reduce specific health-related contaminants, including lead, Cryptosporidium/Cyst, and Giardia).

New York City water sources

New York City Drinking Water Report/Public Domain

But in fact, as noted in an earlier post, New York tap water is among the world's best. Thanks to some very smart and far-sighted planning going back to 1842, the City controls 1,900 square miles of land containing pristine lakes and reservoirs that supply approximately 1.4 billion gallons of water each day to nearly 9 million people in New York City and surrounding counties. It is pure, clean, and unfiltered. It has none of those listed contaminants and many repeated blind taste tests have found that it had a better taste and odor than Aquafina, Poland Spring, and Evian.

Now to be fair to Reefill, they do have what a wag on Twitter called a "steerage button" where you can get plain old New York water out of their taps for free. And to be balanced, they do note on their site that they are not really selling water, but the hardware.

The membership fee covers the infrastructure and maintenance of the network, including the chilling and filtering of the water. We are not charging for the water -- tap water is always free from each Reefill station -- and once you access chilled, filtered water from a station, you can take as much as you’d like and fill up your friends’ bottles too!

But in fact, there are lots of places in New York City where you can get New York water for free and fill up your water bottles; it is a public resource. The big problem with Reefill is that it continues delivering the message that somehow, tap water isn't quite good enough. This has been going on for a while; as Elizabeth Royte noted in Bottlemania, one Pepsico marketing VP said to investors in 2000: "When we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes."

The bottled water people have pretty much succeeded if people actually believe that they should pay to drink filtered New York tap water. I suppose TreeHugger should support any venture that is trying to reduce the use of bottled water, but not if it is continuing to scare people off tap by suggesting it is somehow better.

UPDATE: Jason of Reefill has responded to this post and I think the following is relevant to the discussion:

As you know, our goal is to give people an alternative to bottled water and it is not our intention to scare people off tap -- in fact, quite the opposite: we want people to drink more tap and are trying to make it as widely, conveniently, and freely available as possible. Our current pilot network sees 10,000 uses a month, over 90% of which is for tap.

Bottled water marketing has been extremely effective and many consumers now want something more than just tap water or they will not change their habits. Filtered water is very common in offices (e.g., pantry dispensers) and homes (e.g., fridge dispensers and pitchers) but not easily accessible on the go so we purposely offer both plain tap and chilled filtered to make the service appealing to everyone, regardless of their current thoughts on tap water. We will soon be adding city fountains to the Reefill map as well but the reality is if you zoom in on the map from your article you can see that there are very few water fountains in certain dense areas of NYC, like where we have our stations (and these fountains are off at least half the year). So we view Reefill as a complement to city fountains.