Home » “Investing in innovation is essential”: Sprudel’s founder on getting the world to quit single-use plastic

“Investing in innovation is essential”: Sprudel’s founder on getting the world to quit single-use plastic

by Madaline Dunn

The world churns out about 380 million tons of plastic every year, around half of which is single-use. When discarded, this waste either ends up in landfills or in our oceans, where it destroys habitats and harms both land and marine species. 

In fact, less than 10 per cent of all the plastic ever made has been recycled – with recycling posing its own set of problems.

But even before it’s disposed of, plastic causes significant harm to both the planet and people.

Almost all plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels – and with production projected to triple by 2050 if no action is taken, it’s set to make up nearly half of oil demand growth by midcentury, further driving climate breakdown.

Beyond contributing to environmental destruction, throughout its lifecycle, plastic is also linked to various health impacts, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and birth defects, among others – however, much of plastic’s health impacts are still unknown. 

As the hidden cost of plastic increasingly comes to the fore, we are beginning to see action on a policy and private sector level through both initiatives and innovation. 

One of the companies driving this innovation in the UAE is Sprudel, a planet-friendly water company on a mission to curb single-use plastics. 

ESG Mena spoke to Sprudel’s founder, Shawn Green, to learn more about the company’s plastic-free water solutions and the steps to drive further action in the space.

Shawn, tell me about how Sprudel began and its core mission.

Having grown up here in the 90s, it was normal for me to drink from water coolers when I went out biking with my friends. I went to Germany for nine years and every time I returned to the UAE – which was four times a year – I could see that single-use plastic bottles were still on the rise. 

Having seen the quality of dispensing technology first-hand in Germany and seeing the path we were on here in the UAE, it was an obvious challenge to take up and do my bit for my home. Our core mission is to eliminate the need for single-use plastic water bottles.

Plastic is not only an environmental scourge in terms of end-of-life plastic waste pollution; over 99 per cent of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. Tell me about the impact of plastic on both the planet and human health.

As you say, plastic bottles are almost entirely made from oil.

To that, add the fact that the manufacturing of a one-litre bottle of water uses three litres of water, it becomes obvious that it is not sustainable.

We’re only now seeing the consequences of single-use plastic consumption with companies like The Ocean Cleanup highlighting the amount of plastic that is in the oceans. You only have to go to the beach and swim in the sea on the East Coast to see how much plastic waste is laying around.

We are also only now starting to understand what impact the chemicals used in manufacturing plastic bottles have on human health. Latest studies suggest bottled water contains thousands of nanoplastics so small, they can invade the body’s cells. 

We are still unsure of the long-term effect that consuming chemicals such as BPA or BPS has on the human body, but initial studies suggest it can have a very negative effect, which is very important for us over here where plastic bottles are often kept in direct sunlight, which is the perfect condition for chemicals to leach into the water that’s then consumed.

Tell me about Sprudel’s solutions and their impacts.

We have been offering our corporate clients, hotel clients and F&B outlets plastic-free drinking water solutions for the past ten years.

We offer point-of-use dispensers which take mains-fed water, run it through a 0.2 micron filtration system, chill the water to around 5 degrees Celsius, and then the user has an option of dispensing still or sparkling water.

We essentially offer the exact same system as the soda fountains in every fast-food restaurant, but without the syrup (yes, every soda fountain in the UAE uses filtered tap water). These products are the backbone of our company. Since 2021, we have also started to design and manufacture our own system especially for the hotel industry, where we replace single-use plastic bottles in hotel rooms with our custom-made reusable glass bottles. These high-capacity filling systems, made in the UAE, alone save close to 1 million bottles a year in some of our bigger hotels.

We are now estimating to be saving around 35 million bottles a year throughout our client portfolio.

How does your business model operate, what markets do you serve and who are your main clientele?

We run a hybrid model of subscription and purchase.

Initially, our clients preferred to lease our dispensers, so they would pay a small monthly fee and we would take care of the rest.

In the past few years, we have seen a change in that companies prefer to purchase the dispensers and have an annual maintenance contract (which is for the upkeep of their systems). 

We serve only B2B markets, and we are the go-to company for leading global companies. 

Our main areas of operation are places like DIFC (companies like the DIFC Authority and Ashurst) and Internet City (companies like Microsoft, one of our oldest clients).

How have your products been received, and what are the biggest hurdles to consumers ditching single-use plastics?

Ten years ago, it was a lot harder to convince companies to drink filtered tap water.

But through education and rigorous water testing, it became easier and now companies come to us and are actively searching for plastic-free solutions. 

The main hurdle, in my opinion, is still the fact that plastic offers a convenient solution when it comes to drinking water. You buy a bottle, which is very cheap, you drink it, you throw it away, and you carry on with life.

There is also a limit on where you can find alternatives to plastic bottled water, something that the government is actively trying to change.

What is the role of partnership in scaling impact & tell us about any partnerships you have in this regard?

Partnerships play a crucial role in scaling impact by leveraging the strengths, resources, and expertise of different stakeholders towards the common goal of eliminating plastic drinking bottles from the workplace and in hotels.

We consider all of our clients as partners because we don’t just sell them a drinking water product; we work with them to educate their staff on the benefits of single-use plastic-free drinking water. We have long-term vision and are still working with clients today who came on board ten years ago.

There are always questions that staff members have, and we are the source of information to help them understand the answer.

It’s a continuing job for us, and one we are happy to do.

What are your thoughts on progress toward the Plastics Treaty & hopes for the outcome?

The progress toward the Plastics Treaty has been enhanced by the positive outcome of COP28, which some consider the most successful to date, injecting renewed hope into global environmental governance. This momentum enhances optimism that an international Plastics Treaty could lead to significant, enforceable actions against plastic pollution. 

I personally hope that the Treaty will establish stringent, enforceable regulations to reduce plastic use and pollution, fostering innovation in sustainable alternatives, and it ensures that solutions are both globally applicable and adaptable to local contexts. The emphasis needs to be on achieving a balanced approach that promotes environmental sustainability, economic viability, and social equity.

Regionally, we’ve seen progress with regard to plastic policy, including in the UAE with the single-use plastic ban. But what needs to happen next to drive further change?

To further the progress made by the UAE’s ban on single-use plastics, we need a broad approach that includes educating people about the effects of plastic and how to reduce its use. 

Businesses and restaurants, in particular, require more incentives to shift away from plastics, making eco-friendly alternatives (like Sprudel) not only a viable option, but a preferred one.

Enhancing recycling efforts and expanding regulations to cover a broader array of plastic products are also crucial steps.

Engaging local communities ensures everyone has a role in tackling plastic pollution.

Additionally, investing in innovation is essential for developing sustainable materials that could replace plastics, which becomes a subject that is completely aligned with the Government’s push to industrialise the UAE. 

By creating a supportive environment for companies and dining establishments to adopt plastic-free practices, we can significantly amplify the impact of initial measures and drive a substantial reduction in plastic pollution.

Policies, treaties and initiatives have a huge role to play in changing the landscape, but shifting consumer mindsets and raising awareness of the plastic pollution issue and solutions to tackle it are also vital.

What are some key steps here, and how is Sprudel leading action in this regard?

For us at Sprudel, we rely heavily on data to educate our clients on the safety aspect of drinking filtered tap water through our dispensers.

We test the water that comes out of our products and produce a certificate of the complete chemical composition of the water, so our clients know what they are drinking is actually safe. 

On average, there is huge negativity around drinking tap water in the UAE, so you have to have hard evidence to support the argument that the water is safe for us.

The only way to do this is through third-party water tests. It is a great help in persuading someone to drink the water.

How do we close the intent-action gap?

There needs to be more incentives, be it from companies or the government, to be more sustainable. The convenience of purchasing a bottle of water, drinking it and then throwing it away, far outweighs the environmental impact of it. Even for hotels and restaurants, the profit margins are way too big for them to want to offer a cheaper alternative. Education needs to be amplified if we are to get a big number of people to change.

What’s ahead for Sprudel?

Looking forward, we are developing more products that will be made in the UAE, fully aligning with the Government’s push to industrialise. We are very proud to be the only company here who are actually manufacturing within the country, so we will be pursuing more products with the ‘Make it in the Emirates’ tag.

The big goal for us is to be able to save 60 million plastic bottles annually, which should be achievable in the next three years on our current trajectory. 60 million is a symbolic figure in our industry because that would equate to the same amount of single-use plastic bottles purchased worldwide, in an hour.

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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