NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Robert Rheaume met with retail buyers last year, his $20 Sigg aluminum water bottles were a tough sell. After all, the market was limited mainly to hikers and campers, many of whom were already devoted to Nalgene's $10 plastic version. But after this summer's deluge of headlines about the environmental impact of plastic water bottles, he's got more buyers than he even wants.
"Now the same people that were blowing me off a year ago are calling me and saying, 'OK, I get it. How can I get onboard?'" Mr. Rheaume said.
Sigg -- which has the added bonus of not being made in China -- has been approached by several mass-market retailers in recent months as the once-booming $16 billion bottled-water industry, dominated by industry giants such as Nestlé, Coke and Pepsi, comes under siege.
City governments have taken up the bottled-water cause. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (who recently banned plastic grocery bags) has banned plastic water bottles in city offices and is encouraging city residents to drink from the tap. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has issued similar warnings.
Americans are taking heed. A Google search for "stop using plastic water bottles" turned up 2.3 million hits. "Bottled-water waste" turned up 1.9 million.
Sales are slowing as well. Beverage Digest reports that retail sales of bottled water (excluding vending machines and Wal-Mart) grew only 9% this year compared with 16% in 2006. Editor John Sicher doesn't think this has to do with the negative publicity and attributes it to the inevitable slowing of a long-booming industry. Not everyone agrees.
"This could be pretty significant," said Joe Pawlak, VP of restaurant consultant Technomic. "People are being more socially conscious, whether it's global warming, sustainability or landfills. I think it's an offshoot of the boomers wanting to leave a positive legacy."
According to water-filtration company Brita (owned by bleach giant Clorox), Americans discard 38 billion plastic water bottles a year, and it takes 1.5 billion barrels of oil to produce them.
Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association, said the bottled-water industry has been unfairly targeted. He claims that bottled water is America's No. 2 beverage (after soda) but accounts for only a third of 1% of the nation's waste. "We strongly think any efforts to reduce the environmental impact of packaging must focus on all consumer goods and not just target one industry, like bottled water," he said.
To present that point of view, in August the association began a PR and advertising campaign in newspapers such as The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle to, as the association says, "bring balanced, positive and factual bottled-water information to consumers and community leaders."
Individual bottlers, meanwhile, are struggling to stem the tide of cold water. "I get the sense that there's a desire to vilify our industry and point to it as hurting the community," said an insider at a major bottler.
Manufacturers are reducing the materials required for their bottles, which is known as light-weighting. In recent years, Coca-Cola has reduced its Dasani bottle weight 30%, to 16 grams. PepsiCo has reduced its Aquafina bottles nearly 40%, to 15 grams, and Nestlé Waters is introducing a 12.5 gram bottle this month. Its last model was 14.5 grams. Nestlé, which owns Deer Park, Ice Mountain and Polar Spring waters, among many others, has a lot at stake. It controls nearly $4 billion of the $5 billion grocery market for single-serving bottles, according to Information Resources Inc.
While the majors are rushing to make changes, reusable-bottle companies are working to make their brands better known. Nalgene is reaching out to the mass market for the first time. Brita -- which, of course, competes with the bottled-water industry -- approached Nalgene this summer for a co-branded campaign encouraging consumers to filter tap water at home. Participants pledge at FilterForGood.com to avoid plastic water bottles for a month, a week or a year. Nalgene is also selling a $10 "Refill Not Landfill" bottle and donating $4 to the Blue Planet Run Foundation.
"With all of the press and interest in bottled-water waste, we wanted to provide a solution," said Brita Brand Manager Hank Mercier. "Brita water plus Nalgene gives you great healthy water with the convenience of being able to carry it around as well." Mr. Mercier said Brita has experienced strong sales growth since the media blitz against plastic bottles began.
At Nalgene, Senior Marketing Manager Eric Hansen said the response has been overwhelming. "This resonates with a lot of people because so many environmental issues are so big that people can't get their head around them," he said. "Global warming is a good example. How does someone make a change in their daily habits that lets them feel like they're making a difference?"
Mr. Hansen said his company is in talks with at least three mass-market retailers interested in carrying Nalgene products in their stores. Nalgene Outdoor is the cool offshoot catering to outdoorsmen of Nalgene Nunc Corp., which primarily makes packaging, lab and scientific equipment. But even Nalgene isn't immune from controversy: The marketer has been battling some public perceptions that its thick-plastic bottles have been known to leach on the first few uses, giving a plastic taste to the water, and that they retain the flavor of other beverages -- sometimes for the life of the bottle.
"It's been an issue for us," Mr. Hansen said. The company's official statement on the leaching issue -- posted on the Nalgene Outdoor website, says: "Based on the findings of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, The American Plastics Council and other reliable sources from around the world, we continue to firmly believe in the safety of our products."
Nestlé spokeswoman Jane Lazgin said her company has been working on bottles made from renewable material for several years. Just getting the plastic bottles to 12.5 grams meant re-engineering the bottle so it could stand up, avoid leaks and sustain suction.
Earlier this month, Coca-Cola pledged $60 million to build recycling plants. One of the plants, in Spartansburg, S.C., will be the world's largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant -- meaning new bottles are made directly from old ones. A big problem, said Coke spokeswoman Diana Garza, is that many consumers don't have curbside recycling. Neither Coke nor Pepsi is working on a nonplastic bottle at present. They'll need to.
Even so, Technomic's Mr. Pawlack said manufacturers' recent moves are just "Band-Aids."
"They're going to be looking into more environmentally friendly packing that's biodegradable, easier to recycle or made from totally different materials," he said. "They're going to be looking at all of these types of things as we move forward. We think this whole social-consciousness issue is here to stay."