Fresh water: turning away from plastic bottles

Drinking water onboard doesn’t have to come out of a plastic bottle. Felicity Landon reports on an alternative solution – and on a company’s mission to convince ship owners and seafarers.

Across all sectors, the pressure is on to eliminate single-use plastics. Shipping is no exception, particularly in the context of the horrendous level of plastic waste in our oceans. But while undoubtedly companies are making changes in response to public pressure and their own commitment to sustainability, regulation is a factor too.

IMPA SAVE initiative was launched in 2020 to tackle this as its first goal. IMPA SAVE’s Getting to Zero target encourages ship owners and managers to switch to suitable alternatives to plastic bottled water, aiming for a reduction by 2025. It does so by bringing together members of the industry to work on sustainability initiatives. IMPA’s SAVE programmes are all indicators that the industry is responding and ship operators must take notice. 

IMO guidelines state that ship owners and operators “should minimise taking on board material that could become garbage” and, along with ship suppliers, they should consider the products being procured in terms of the garbage they will generate. 

Kuwait and India have gone much further – both have banned single-use plastic onboard ships. Kuwait, for example, requires foreign and Kuwaiti ships to keep plastic items such as water bottles, hot drink cups and food containers locked in a store when calling into its ports or when in Kuwaiti waters, and ships are not permitted to discharge such items to Kuwaiti port reception facilities. 

“I strongly believe that it is only a matter of time before we start seeing other countries adopting similar regimes. This translates into thousands of vessels turning to alternative solutions in order to meet the demand of the crew for drinking water that not only is safe but also tastes good,” says Andreas Kyriakides, sales and business development director at Norwegian company URSA. 

URSA, set up as a subsidiary of the ballast water management specialists Mouawad Consulting, supplies drinking water machines that are connected directly to the ship’s water supply. The Essential DW machine is a four-stage ultra-filtration system which is also equipped with a pre-filter, all housed within a high-impact metallic cabinet. It is supplied with a spare part package sufficient for up to two years of normal operation.

The system is described by Kyriakides as simple to install, cost effective, user friendly and low maintenance. “These words were like a bible to us when we aimed to design and manufacture an alternative source of drinking water,” he says. “We wanted to propose a solution that would solve a problem without introducing other problems such as increased maintenance requirements or breakdowns.”

As he says, there is no actual law forcing vessels to install such machines, but he expects regulation to tighten up and eventually “all shipowners will be looking for solutions like ours”.

He emphasises that the URSA DW is not only about reducing the use of plastic bottles – it is also about eliminating the overall costs associated with transporting and sourcing large quantities of bottled water to ships around the world. 

“The simple and easy-to-install unit is supplied with an advanced filtration method with NSF approval and can be connected directly to the ship’s freshwater supply. It provides on-demand drinking water, always fresh and crisp with all necessary minerals, and it doesn’t require any electricity.”

A great deal of attention has been paid to the mineral filters, he says. “The URSA DW basically filters sediment and aims to purify harmful substances in the water, such as pathogenic E.coli.”

When seeking to replace the plastic bottled water on board, there were many challenges. One was keeping the level of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) at an acceptable level. TDS include all the elements, good and bad, in the water that we drink, and can be both organic and inorganic substances. The URSA DW kills bacteria and filters thoroughly while adding back to the water all the necessary minerals, giving it a TDS of 90 to 120 ppm. Also, depending on where the water has been sourced and the condition of storage and piping on board, water can contain rust, sand and other contaminants. “Our system filters out and blocks anything like this, and then balances the minerals, adding anything that’s needed.”

IMPA SAVE’s Getting to Zero target encourages ship owners and managers to switch to suitable alternatives to plastic bottled water, aiming for a reduction by 2025

The system can fit into any size or type of vessel and is specifically designed for the marine environment. Usually, a ship would install up to three DW machines, although some choose as many as five in order to give easier access to crew.

“The area that the ship will definitely install one such machine is the galley, eliminating the need to use bottled water for cooking and providing easy access to fresh drinking water for the crew. As with any fundamental change in “the way we have always done things”, the main obstacle and challenge is about mindsets – in this case, of the crew and the ship owner or operator, says Kyriakides.

“The crew often believe that bottled is better. They have to be persuaded. In fact, what we are providing is drinking water that is literally being filtered on demand. The water in plastic bottles may have been excellent when it was first filtered into the bottle, but it has been travelling, perhaps sitting in the sun, and it is not fresh.”

Changing the crew’s mindset as to how they perceive the drinking water in terms of safety and quality is a challenge that anyone would face when aiming to remove plastic bottled water from vessels, he says.

Although cost is not something that would generally concern them, crew often ignore the many disadvantages of water in a plastic bottle.

We wanted to propose a solution that would solve a problem without introducing other problems such as increased maintenance requirements or breakdowns

“The way we often proceed with a new client is to have them install one machine onboard various vessels so that the crew can make a comparison with their bottled water. The feedback we get from the ship’s management is really fantastic, since the crew will often claim that our URSA DW-generated water is even better in taste. Of course, the ship will often do its own chemical tests at authorised labs, so that they have their own proof of the quality of the water generated.”

A cooling machine can be provided as an added extra (although this would need electricity). In fact, room temperature water is considered superior by many for quenching thirst – and seafarers who really want chilled water can always fill a bottle and refrigerate it for later.

URSA has supplied nearly 150 vessels with DW machines so far, averaging three machines per vessel. It works directly with ship owners/managers as well as with marine catering companies. Some catering companies have installed the machines in their own offices, so that their staff can try out
the water before any decision is taken to install onboard ships. 

The DW machines are delivered ready to install – a task that can easily be undertaken by one of the engineers onboard, says Kyriakides. “There is absolutely no maintenance involved other than the replacement of the filters, a process that is very simple and done in seconds.”

The recommendation is that the pre-filter is replaced once a month and the pack of four mineral filters is replaced twice a year. URSA is working hard to create a solution for mass recycling, although there are clear challenges in terms of gathering all the used filters in one or more central locations.

The DW filters are manufactured in South Korea and stocks are kept in Singapore, and at many ports across Europe and elsewhere. 

“We knew we had to be able to provide the machines and the filters to various locations globally, and this is appreciated by clients. On ship, there is so much going on – if this was a headache, the ship owner would say ‘let’s just give the crew bottled water’. So our system not only has to be better quality and lower cost, it also has to create no additional issues. Simplicity was always the key aim.”