Iowa City Mom Confronts Wasteful Water Bottles Through Water Refill Business Plan
Seeking an alternative to the waste created by bottled water, Gretchen Swan created Thirst Station as a way to test if a water refilling station might be financially viable.
Gretchen Swan sees her young business venture as just an extension of her own environmental activism, which is really just a natural extension of being a good mother.
Swan, 39, a stay-at-home mom of three who lives in rural Iowa City, started her own business called Thirst Station in 2010. It is based on the premise that if a drinking fountain was more like a vending machine, consumers could buy fewer disposable water bottles, and thus create less waste.
According to National Geographic, Americans purchase an average of 29 billion water bottles every year, which require 17 million barrels of crude oil to produce, and a separate report suggests more than 75 percent of water bottles end up in the landfill where they can take 1,000 years to degrade.
In this way, it would support the habit of using reusable water bottles, by providing the same quality of water offered by disposables.
"The idea was how could you level the playing field a little bit? How could you make the good habit a little bit easier to stick with?" Swan said.
Swan Hopes Thirst Station Inspires Other Entrepreneurs
Swan has spent the last two years trying to prove that idea can be financially viable. The Thirst Station is a device much like a smaller vending machine hooked up to a water line that provides purified or flavored water to people with reusable bottles for a small fee of 40 cents (for water) up to $1 (for flavored drinks).
Swan came up with the idea in 2009. After quitting her job in sales to devote her life to taking care of her kids, she said she decided to model healthy habits for her kids, encouraging recycling, eating home grown food and reducing the waste produced by her household.
She said it was important to her as a mother to try to create change in her environment, which included the environment as a whole.
"We just don't live in this bubble inside our home, we're part of a greater world, we're interdependent," Swan said.
Trip to Landfill Opened Eyes
Then, on one fateful trip to the Johnson County Landfill, which she organized to teach her children about waste, Swan was shocked herself to find out not only how much waste there was, but how long it lasted.
"It just hit me square between the eyes," Swan said. "And put more fire behind trying to do things better."
Fully energized by this experience, Swan set about trying to reduce waste her own life. She noticed on family errands, her kids would balk at bringing water bottles to be filled at the water fountain, instead pleading for the shiny vending machines nearby. From this, the idea for Thirst Station was born.
Swan's ambitions is to affect change by showing there is a profit to be made in this method of reducing waste. In this sense, she says she is less concerned in making herself money than in showing others that money can be made using this model.
"You will get a lot of people thinking this is a good idea if it also is an idea that produces some revenue," Swan said. "If you could show that there was a business model behind this, then you could get change to happen quicker and have it be more widespread."
After having a test station in the University of Iowa's Pappajohn Business Building, Swan now has stations piloting at the elementary and high school levels in the Solon School District, with another machine pending school board approval at the middle school level. About a month ago, she started one in the Iowa City School District's new administration building.
She said her station in Solon's Lakeview Elementary School, subsidized by the local Parent Teacher Oranization, offers free purified water to students. She said this has led to students and teachers bringing more water bottles to school and drinking more water instead of other alternatives.
Use Climbing at Elementary School
Since starting in the beginning of the fall, the Thirst Station in the elementary school is nearing its 10,000th pour, which is the quivalent of 10,000 16 ounce water bottles, Swan said.
Swan, said she and her supportive husband, Jeff, have used their own funds to purchase the Thirst Stations, which are made by a company in England, and she admitted she has not yet shown the machines can turn a profit. She said she has been hampered at times by air tight contracts that corporate giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi have with local venues.
"The joke is if all this fails, everyone in the family is getting a Thirst Station for Christmas next year," she said.
Still, despite not knowing if she will succeed, Swan said she is determined to keep this idea going, if nothing else to raise awareness about the growing problem of waste in this country.
"Most of us don't think that what's going on is a good thing, but we feel overwhelmed, like there's nothing we can do about it. And I reject that," Swan said. "I am hopeful that (her kids) see this as an example of, if you see a problem, you need to have skin in the game, you need to get involved."
You can learn more about Thrist Station here.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.
Correct: The article originally reported that there was already a Thirst Station machine at Solon Middle School. This machine is pending approval of the Solon School Board before it will be installed.