By David Yaffe-Bellany
About the last thing Selena James wants to do is drink water from a can.
“Something like that would scare me,” James, 53, said after buying a bottle of Mountain Dew at a corner deli in Brooklyn. “You see juice in a can, not water. You see water in a bottle.”
Her instinctual aversion to water in a can highlights a challenge facing one of the world’s biggest beverage companies, PepsiCo, as it seeks to persuade consumers to embrace a new product it says is meant to help the environment.
Pepsi said Thursday that starting early next year, its Aquafina brand of water would be test-marketed in aluminum cans at some retailers and food-service providers.
Stacy Taffet, the Pepsi vice president who oversees the company’s water brands, acknowledged that while many kinds of fizzy water already came in aluminum containers, drinking still water from a can would be “a newer behavior” for many people.
“Our goal is to be a little bit ahead of consumers here,” she said, “and help nudge them in the right direction.”
Consumers are also nudging Pepsi. In recent years, public sentiment has turned against single-use plastic items, which can end up accumulating in landfills or floating in oceans. Across the world, only 9 per cent of all the plastic ever made has been recycled; by contrast, 67 per cent of the aluminum bought by consumers every year is reused.
And consumers have already adjusted to, or even welcomed, cans for seltzer, craft beer and even wine. Pepsi also plans to sell its carbonated water, Bubly, in cans and to put Lifewtr, a purified water that contains electrolytes, in bottles made entirely from recycled plastic.
But there’s a limit to how much environmental good Pepsi’s new packaging can achieve. While putting water in aluminum cans and recycled plastic is a step forward for the industry, the best way for consumers to protect the environment would be to give up packaged water entirely, said Peter Gleick, the author of a book about bottled water.
Pepsi is “trying to do better at things that maybe we shouldn’t be doing at all,” Gleick said.
Many of the details of Pepsi’s canned water experiment remain unclear. Taffet said the company was still working out where the water would be sold and what the price would be.
In the meantime, consumers who want an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles have other options. In recent years, Boxed Water, a Michigan company that packages its water in paper containers resembling milk cartons, has gained something of a cult following.
And a new brand, Ever & Ever, packages water in bottle-shaped aluminum cans with screw tops.
Despite growing public awareness of the environmental consequences, sales of bottled water have continued to increase in the United States in recent years, rising more than 5% in 2018, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. That growth has helped offset a decline in the core soda business of companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
“Consumers are clearly interested in the convenience of bottled water, the affordability,” said Duane Stanford, the executive editor of the trade publication Beverage Digest. He described Pepsi’s packaging move as a low-risk experiment that would not send the company “too far down the road too quickly toward a decision that might not be the best when it comes to how consumers react.”
The kind of skepticism that Pepsi may face was on full display in the bottled-water aisle at a Target at the Atlantic Terminal Mall in Brooklyn.
Hector Orantes, who was in the store, said he periodically stocked up on bottles of Poland Spring water at a BJ’s Wholesale Club. Orantes, a gym teacher from Queens, said that something about the idea of drinking water from an aluminum can felt strange to him. He said he preferred that his water receptacles be transparent.
“I need to see the contents of the water,” he said. “I need to see there’s nothing inside.”