Yale’s message in a bottle

WILLINGTON, Conn. — On a hillside in rural Connecticut, there is a small, red wooden house. Inside, a natural spring rises to the surface through a granite base above a pit of sand.

This is the source of Yale’s bottled water.

For the past nine years, the University has purchased water — labeled with Yale’s name — from Village Springs, a family-owned company here. While Yale Dining decided to purchase privately labeled bottled water in preparation for the University’s tercentennial celebrations in 2001, it has continued to do so not only because it is cost-effective and is good advertising for Yale, but also because the University wants to support local commerce, Dining Facilities manager Daniel Flynn said.

“[The decision to purchase the bottles] was a build-up to the tercentennial celebration,” Flynn said. “Everyone was into having their own label. It’s great for marketing and cheaper than buying Poland Springs.”

Yale heard about Village Springs in 2001 through the University of Connecticut, which also purchases bottled water from the company, said Geraldine Remer, the purchasing manager for Yale Dining. The bottles are used for catered events and are sold in retail stores such as Durfee’s, Donaldson Commons at the School of Management, the Thain Family Café in Bass Library and the kiosk at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

It was important for Yale to purchase an all-Connecticut product, Flynn said: The plastic bottles are produced by the Plastipak Packaging in Enfield, the labels by Flexo Label Solutions in Bloomfield, and the trays to transport the bottles by International Paper in Putnam. Each bottle label bears a stamp in the shape of the state that says, “A Connecticut Product.” Village Springs president Christine Stetson said the company designed the label to showcase its commitment to local commerce, which Flynn said attracted Yale.

“We definitely try to buy local if we can,” he said.

The current bottle label, which depicts Harkness Tower covered in water droplets, was designed by Russell Shaddox, a graphic designer who worked for Yale Reprographic and Imaging Services until 2001.

“It was obviously iconic for Yale, as well as looking cool and refreshing,” Shaddox said of the design.

A separate label was created with the tercentennial logo for the celebration, as well as one for the independently operated Law School dining hall, which began purchasing its own bottles two years ago, said its manager, Jim Barnett.

Village Springs produces private labels for more than 200 clients, including Brown University and Smith College.

Though Yale has varied its orders from year to year, in 2009 the University purchased approximately 132,000 half-liter bottles, Remer said. Orders are placed once a month through U.S. Foods (the University’s distributor) and more bottles are delivered during periods of high demand, such as Commencement, Remer said.

Village Springs — whose slogan is “water to live by” — has been operated by the same family for five generations, Stetson said. Her family has lived in Willington since the town’s founding in the 18th century — her grandfather helped to build the town church, school and firehouse — though the Stetsons only began bottling water in 1989.

The spring was originally used to power a thread-dyeing mill and to provide water to the houses of nearby mill workers, Stetson said, but the mill ceased to operate in the 1950s. The spring served as the only public water supply for the surrounding homes in the village until 2008. Stetson’s late father, Bob Cassells, bought the property from her maternal grandfather 40 years ago and had the idea to convert the spring into a bottling operation, she said.

Now, Stetson and her brothers, Sean and Bob, run the company together. The company is a close community of relatives and local friends — a community Yale joined when it began purchasing water bottles from the company.

“It’s important to protect [the spring] as much as possible — it’s our family’s biggest asset,” Stetson said.

The spring, which flows out of the ground at its own natural rate of 150 gallons a minute, is gravity-fed through a pipe from the spring house to a holding tank below the bottling plant a couple hundred of feet away, Stetson said. The water is then pumped from the holding tank to the bottling plant. Because the spring puts out more water than Village Springs can use, the excess water runs off into the surrounding 470 acres of wetlands.

The company operates three different bottling lines — the half-liter, the-gallon and the five-gallon. The plant can process 150 to 200 half-liter bottles per minute. The bottles are fed into an assembly line where they move single-file: The bottles are rinsed, turned upside down, filled as they hang from the machine and then finally capped, all automatically. Next, the bottles move through the labeling machine, which holds large tape rolls of labels. Once the bottles are filled and labeled, they are grouped into rows of four and herded into a cardboard tray. Each tray of 24 bottles is shrink-wrapped and loaded onto pallets for shipping.

Water quality testing is an integral part of operations at Village Springs, Stetson said. Every time the bottling machines are turned on or off, even if only for lunch, the operators run through a checklist, inspecting the machines and performing basic maintenance. Every day, Stetson randomly selects a bottle from the production line and tests its ozone level, pH level and other quantities. She also tests the bottle for bacteria by adding sugar and incubating the water for 24 hours.

Every year, the company sends water to be tested by several external labs, shipping samples overnight to Florida, California and Colorado, Stetson said. The labs are located outside of Connecticut because by federal law, Village Springs is required to pass tests from a lab that has been certified in all 50 states. In addition, Village Springs is randomly inspected once a year by the NSF, a public health and safety company. So far, the company has met or exceeded Environmental Protection and Food and Drug Administration regulations, Stetson said.

The recession has not severely affected Village Springs, Stetson said. Because the company is family-owned, it can tighten its budget in ways that other companies cannot, especially since Village Springs buys its supplies locally and ships only within New England.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate,” she said.

Despite Yale having had its own bottled water for nearly a decade, five of eight students interviewed said they did not know Yale had its own bottled water. Other students said they consider Yale’s bottled water an inexpensive, but high-quality, substitute for other brands.

“I often buy bottles of Yale water at Durfee’s as a happy medium between purchasing grossly overpriced products such as FIJI [Water] and Smartwater, and simply refilling old bottles,” Niccolo Locati ’12 said.

At Durfee’s, a 1.5-liter bottle of FIJI Natural Artesian Water costs $3.50, and a 20-ounce bottle of Smartwater costs $2.19. A half-liter of Yale bottled water costs $1.39, which, per liter, is more expensive than FIJI but less expensive than Smartwater.

But Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership (STEP) coordinator Julie Naman ’12 said she does not support the idea of Yale bottling its own water — or the idea of bottled water in general.

“It’s a silly idea because we have tap water,” Naman said. “I’m not sure where the Yale bottled water comes from, but bottled water is generally much less regulated than tap water.”

Sean Fraga reported from Willington, Conn., and Chantal Fernandez reported from New Haven.

Comments

  • Streever

    You know what would actually be incredible? If Yale said “this bottled water thing is crap” and gave every entering student a permanent water bottle and explained how to use it.

  • Hieronymus

    Hey, that was a good story!

    Were I of a different bent, I might question how one family can dominate a natural resource that “rightfully” should belong to all… but that is hogwash.

    As for tap versus bottled: let the consumer decide.

    Those notes aside, I found the story–and the reporting–engaging, pertinent, and even “heart-warming.”

    Good job!

  • Brendan

    “…it has continued to do so not only because it is cost-effective and is good advertising for Yale, but also because the University wants to support local commerce…”

    Far more cost effective: reusable water bottles; cups, water fountains…pretty much any method other than buying water. Over a dollar for a half-liter is more expensive than milk, gas, etc!

    Advertising for Yale? Really? REALLY? I would be sad if Yale needed to assert its presence with water; next we’ll be shipping bottles to prospective students…

    Support for local commerce? There are a million better ways to do this. Local doesn’t automatically = awesome.

    Great article though!

  • y11

    I thought this was a cool article, and good for Yale. I’m sure, however, I’ll get shouted down by more people who think this is an egregious waste of resources and an affront to the environment. Le sigh.

  • yalestaff

    great article. i’ve always wondered about that water!

  • y12

    While the article was written well, I wished that it had addressed the environmental problems associated with buying bottled water. So far only 1/5 bottles gets recycled…not to count all the oil that is consumed in manufacturing something that we can get out of our tap, or all the extra money spent on something that is already cheaply provided.
    I find it sad that our front page article today is celebrating a practice unnecessarily detrimental to the environment as if it were like purchasing “local foods”.

  • @y11

    Yes.

  • Yalie.

    If each bottle costs $0.25, Yale could save about $33,000 a year by not buying bottled water.

    Not buying bottled water at all:
    Better for the environmental+budget savings = No brainer.

  • @ #8

    But Yale sure makes money by selling the water, right?

  • Another Yalie

    There’s demand for bottled water. That can be reduced, but there will always be some demand (e.g. people who don’t have a water bottle with them).

    It’s better for that demand to be filled with local Connecticut bottled water where Yale gets any extra money than for us all to pay more (in $ and carbon) to ship bottles of extremely expensive water all the way from Fiji!