Be honest: Would you walk into Flint, Mich., today and unconcernedly chug a glass of water from the tap in your hotel room without concern? Few of us would feel completely comfortable—and with good reason. While the headlines may have diminished, Flint’s drinking water crisis is far from over. Many of the city’s more than 100,000 citizens still rely on water filters and bottled water for their drinking water, with the timeline for replacing thousands of lead pipes stretching years into the future.
The national outrage that erupted when news first broke of the lead-contaminated tap water scandal resulted in a massive outpouring of support for the city’s men, women and children, many of whom were reporting rashes, thinning hair and other ill effects as a result of their lead exposure. A tidal wave of bottled water also was sent to Flint by well-meaning people from across the U.S. So many plastic bottles poured into the city that they sparked a secondary environmental problem of how to responsibly dispose of them, leading filmmaker Michael Moore, who once lived in Flint, to appeal to donors to cease their generosity.
Point-of-Use Contaminant Removal
The Kansas-based U.S. operation of Bluewater, a company founded in 2013 by Swedish environmental entrepreneur Bengt Rittri, decided to help Flint’s citizens in a different way. In January 2016, the company donated two of its compact residential water purifiers, which are capable of removing lead from thousands of gallons of water every day. Bluewater opted to donate to local care charities, an offer that quickly was accepted by the Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties and Shelter of Flint.
Catholic Charities provides numerous services for the Flint community, which was hit particularly hard by the last financial recession. The charity supports children, the elderly and adults alike, providing more than 400 meals per day at six locations, depending on the time of the month. At the end of January 2016, Bluewater fitted the Catholic Charities’ North End Soup Kitchen with a Bluewater Pro 400 water purification system, ensuring that the people who rely on the kitchen—some as their only source of food—had access to safe drinking water for cooking and drinking. In March 2017, the company installed a public hydration station that allows community members to refill gallon containers as needed.
“It is imperative that we communicate to the public that just because the water crisis is no longer in the daily news, it is by no means over,” said Vicky Schultz, president and CEO of Catholic Charities. “The effects of lead poisoning will stay with our community long after every pipe has been replaced. Catholic Charities is doing everything we can to help those we serve have access to clean water as well as the nutrition education necessary to truly recover from this disaster.”
The purification systems reduce the shelters’ dependence on bottled water.
Reducing Bottled Water Waste
A second Bluewater Pro was installed in January 2016 at Shelter of Flint, a program providing emergency shelter, transitional housing and outreach services to single parents and families with young children. Liz Ruediger, vice president of operations for Shelter of Flint, said having safe tap water available on demand has made a tremendous difference.
“We provide our residents three meals a day, so having clean, filtered water available for cooking purposes is vital,” Ruediger said. “The empty water bottles have become a new environmental crisis here, and we’re very grateful that our kitchen is not reliant on bottled water and is not contributing to that.”
Bluewater’s Pro water purifiers use a patented second-generation reverse osmosis (RO) process called SuperiorOsmosis, which improves the clean water delivery rate while also reducing the amount of reject water needed to produce purified water. Removing toxic metals, such as lead, as well as chemicals, microorganisms and pharmaceutical byproducts down to 0.0001 µ (500,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair), a high-end model can deliver a flow of more than 80 gal per hour. The Pro 400 model is designed to deliver more than 1,248 gal of purified water per day, which is the equivalent of approximately 4,724 33.8-oz bottles of water, many of which end up in landfills or marine environments.
The United Nations this year declared war on ocean plastics, noting that more than 8 million tons of plastics leak into the oceans every year. The 480 billion plastic bottles produced annually around the world, many of which are not correctly recycled, are key contributors to the pollution. According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the American Chemistry Council, the overall U.S. recycling rate for plastic bottles in 2015 was 31.1%.
The RO technology being used in Flint also solves a criticism often thrown at traditional RO technology—that the process generates more wastewater than clean drinking water. Depending on local water quality conditions, the SuperiorOsmosis technology can deliver up to 70% purified water and 30% wastewater, compared to some traditional RO units that have the opposite product-water-to-wastewater ratio.
“Bluewater’s water purifiers have not just provided peace of mind for the past 18 months to visitors to the two centers in Flint, they have also slashed the need for single-use plastic bottles,” said Lin Guo, head of Bluewater USA Inc. She estimates that if used to full capacity over 24 hours, the two Bluewater units in Flint would have been capable of generating around 1.3 million gal of water over the past 18 months, which is the equivalent of approximately 5 million 33.8-oz bottles of water.