Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Walmart, Coke, Nestlé, PepsiCo Providing Water for Flint Public School Students

In October, water testing found toxic levels of lead in the water at Flint, Mich. schools. The state of Michigan, community groups, various charities, and even Mark Walhberg and Sean “Diddy” Combs have supported the city of about 100,000 residents with bottled water donations in response. The largest donation, though, is coming from Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, which will collectively donate up to 6.5 million bottles of water to meet the daily needs of Flint’s 10,000 public school students. And all of those plastic bottles will have to go somewhere.

Each of these corporate giants has already made water donations to help the community during the crisis: Walmart has donated 504,000 bottles and 1,792 filters to Flint since July 2015; Coca-Cola has donated nearly 78,720 bottles of Dasani to local food banks and foundations; Nestlé Waters North America has donated more than 190,000 bottles since October; and PepsiCo has donated almost 95,000 bottles to the community and the company’s local employees over the past four months. The State of Michigan has distributed 176,118 cases of bottled water and 93,048 water filters so far.

“The water crisis is personal to us here in Flint. Those affected include our own associates, customers and their families,” said Beth Harris, a store manager at Walmart in Flint. “Our associates are proud to be a part of the effort to help our friends and neighbors.”

As a cost-cutting measure, the city switched from water provided by the Detroit system to water from the Flint River. Chlorine was added into the system to address a bacteria problem, but did not add any corrosion control treatment, resulting in lead leaching from pipes and home plumbing. Researchers from Virginia Tech sampled every neighborhood and found that while some neighborhoods had higher lead levels than others, no neighborhoods were safe. The city is in a state of emergency. Children are especially vulnerable given that the effects of lead exposure on development can be lifelong and irreversible.

“PepsiCo believes that access to safe water is a basic human right,” said Tony West, the executive vice president of government affairs at PepsiCo. “We are committed to supporting the communities where we operate, and our collective action today will allow Flint school children and their parents to focus on their education rather than where they can find clean water.”

The government has struggled to resolve the situation and has received heavy criticism as a result – the crisis has been called a fundamental failure at all levels of government – and the challenges are far from over. Besides supplying safe drinking water for its citizens, the government must now also convince residents to recycle the thousands of plastic bottles being used each week. Flint has three landfills, with little capacity for the extra waste resulting from the water emergency.

Documentary filmmaker and Flint-native Michael Moore recently asked people to stop sending bottled water in a letter on his website, saying, “You would have to send 200 bottles a day, per person, to cover what the average American (we are Americans in Flint) needs each day. That’s 102,000 citizens times 200 bottles of water – which equals 20.4 million 16oz. bottles of water per day, every day, for the next year or two until this problem is fixed (oh, and we’ll need to find a landfill in Flint big enough for all those hundreds of millions of plastic water bottles, thus degrading the local environment even further).”

A new plan to increase promotion of the curbside pickup already offered to residents, as well as the addition of drop-off sites for recyclables, was announced yesterday.

“While bottled water has been key to making sure residents have safe drinking water, it’s important to make sure we’re not harming our environment as a result,” Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley said. “The new recycling initiative brings together state, county and city partners to make sure we are keeping plastic bottles from entering landfills or littering Flint streets.”

“Too few residents take advantage of the curbside service that is available to them at no extra cost. That’s the best long-term solution to the recycling issue,” said Matt Flechter, Recycling Market Development Specialist for the State of Michigan. “As a result, we’re working to get the word out about how you can get a recycling bin or use designated clear plastic bags for recyclables.”

Walmart, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have also supported recycling efforts in the U.S. through investment in the Closed Loop Fund, which provides zero-interest loans to cities and low-interest loans to recycling companies to prove that recycling business models are financially sustainable. The Fund was also supported by 3M, P&G, Colgate-Pamolive, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, Keurig Green Mountain, and Unilever. However, it too has drawn criticism. Public interest groups responded by calling on the companies to instead support proven policies to boost recycling, such as extended producer responsibility (EPR), which holds consumer goods companies financially responsible for the collection of their packaging post-use (rather than having taxpayers and local governments foot the bill) and meeting recycling targets.

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