Water boxes have filtered more than four hundred thousand liters of water, saving up to a hundred forty thousand kilograms of Co2 and avoiding single-use plastic water bottles
Heat Inequity: poorer areas struggle more
The threats posed by climate change are no news. What has recently been observed, is that heat waves do not strike everyone and everywhere equally. Dramatic differences are registered between poorer and richer neighborhoods. This phenomenon, as co-founder of JUST Water and 501CTHREE Drew FitzGerald explains, is called Heat Inequity, or Thermo Inequity. He had the chance to observe it first-hand in Los Angeles, before installing one of their water boxes: «in Beverly hills (CA) there is green grass, shading, access to pulls and places where you have thermo positivity but if you make your way down to lower income parts of the same community, there is a lack of green areas, of trees and shade, lack of adequate access to air conditioning».
This remark has a scientific backing in the IPCC report as well. Among the findings, it is stated that «an increase in the frequency or intensity of heatwaves will increase the risk of mortality and morbidity, principally in older age groups and among the urban poor». Life conditions will get worse for lower-income areas and communities. In this context heat is one of the most pressing issues: «although there will be dramatic events such as rainfalls and hurricanes, the persistent problem is going to come from heath» explains FitzGerald, who points out that «having more hot days in the summer and lack of access to adequate, cooling people are going to die and keep dying for heat strokes».
Cooling water can help: 501CTHREE and Waterbox.org
To help tackle heat inequity, from 501CTHREE, Waterbox.org was born. Water boxes were modified to install them in heat-subject, lower-income areas. Water is tightly connected with heat. A resource that should be evenly and democratically distributed. key to fight Thermo Inequity. Their water boxes were born as a system to filtrate and clean water after the Flint water crisis. In hotter areas, where people are more in need of constant refreshing, water boxes will cool down water in addition to filtrating it.
501CTHREE systems are able to filter and cool up to forty liters of water per minute. So far, their water boxes have filtered more than four hundred thousand liters of water, saving up to a hundred forty thousand kilograms of Co2 and avoiding the use of close to a million half-liter single-use plastic water bottles. Data is constantly updated on the Waterbox website. Although the boxes were thought to clean the water, after adjusting the design, they have become a strategic tool to fight the consequences of heat on human health.
Flint water crisis and heat inequity: loss of trust in public water
At the beginning, water boxes were created as a response to provide safe water to people after the Flint crisis. In 2014, the Flint water crisis started to change this perception of public water in the United States. It all started due to a budget crisis. To save money, the municipality decided to change the water provider, starting to source it from the Flint river. The new water was contaminated with lead. Almost a hundred thousand residents were exposed to the damage. This affected the already scarce trust of the average US citizen in public tap water. This raises the figures of the consumption of bottled water. In 2020, close to 113 billion liters of bottled beverages were purchased in the US, more than fifty-six billion liters of which were bottled water. Finding an alternative to single-use plastic bottles is key to lower emissions.
The importance of the water footprint
People, in western countries in particular, have a tendency to give water for granted. Too used to the fact that free, clean and safe water will come out of the faucet. Water is the basic element that guarantees life on the planet. Its sourcing and commercialization also generate a considerable amount of emissions and waste. Yet, talking about a water footprint is less common than considering the carbon footprint: «the carbon footprint is included in the global discourse, but we are less careful about the water footprint». This happens with businesses in particular. On a larger scale, water consumption is considered less impactful. JUST Water was founded in 2015 to try and act on this.
Lampoon reporting: JUST Water
The first piece of the picture was JUST Water, in 2015. Followed by 501CTHREE and Waterbox.org. All three companies, as co-founder FitzGerald told us, «were born from questions». At the time, FitzGerald was working closely with American actor, rapper and producer Will Smith. At the time, his children were barely teenagers, who were starting to explore the big issues of the world. Their parents sent them to FitzGerald and a synergy was born. Looking at the most urgent topics on the planet they selected plastic and water bottles as a starting point: «plastic was one of the biggest topics at the time». They also looked at the differences between the public and private companies and tried to imagine a fictional company «to look at the way water is made today».
Bottled water consumption
The project then turned into a real business with the proposition of building it from the ground up. «the way we wanted to see it built». Bottled water consumption was not going to decrease. But a solution needed to be found for all the plastic that was being used.
They started making water bottles from paper material. It did not end there: «it is incredibly difficult to get away from plastic altogether at any type of scale. We are just not willing to accept that plastic can’t be done a different way, so instead of making the small plastic components of our cartons, like the cap, from petroleum-based plastic, we shifted to plastic made from plants».
Among sugarcane, corn, soy, and switchgrass they selected sugarcane because it requires less energy. The sugarcane for JUST Water bottles is made in Brazil from responsible land use. Their bottles are now made from eighty-eight percent renewable resources, «which means that the sources of the materials can grow back».
Transportation is still an issue
JUST Water is a starting point to reduce the impact of bottled water. One of the issues that still need to be tackled is transportation, which is still impactful. JUST Water works with its own ecommerce and ships with bulks. Considerations were made: «we found out that people were buying JUST Water and then reselling it all over the world with no control». They decided it was better to take the matter in their hands, to be able to monitor and check shipments.
The company was thought of and acts on three pillars. The first is the constant study of how to make the packaging better. The second is rising awareness about both the water crisis and alternatives to plastic, and the potential of recycling. The brand is value-oriented, meaning purchases are linked to and represent a distribution of values that push people and corporations to protect the planet. The third is paying attention to the sourcing of water. They designed a system to be transparent.
Water sourcing to create a business model
Water sourcing was a priority: «we did not want to buy a piece of land and take all the water from there while ruining the ecosystem». So they found an alternative: «we ended up partnering up with a city – an average American city with its issues – that happened to have an extraordinary amount of water but did not know how to commercialize it». They created a partnership with the city based on doing business while giving back to the community: «we are taking out an amount of water and selling it at a higher price than they are able to. We are then giving the money back to the community – but half of it has to be dedicated to fixing your water infrastructure».
Water infrastructures, as FitzGerald explains, are deteriorating all over the world, turning into a healthcare crisis. The same approach was used for the building. Instead of creating a new construction in the outskirts, they bought a church that was not being used in the center of the city. Using what was already there while finding smart solutions to adapt was preferred instead of building what would be convenient while polluting more. Climate change is underlying and increasing differences and inequalities. Water is key. On the one hand, its uneven distribution is part of the problem; but on the other, a correct and fair handling of its sourcing and distribution can represent a responsible way forward.
Born in 2015 to change the idea of bottled water packaging from Drew FitzGerald and Jaden Smith. From it, 501CTHREE started to find ways for filtering water – it partnered with First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church to develop an alternative way for the church and other community organizations to get water to Flint’s residents.