The owners of Ice River Springs (IRS) love Krones for their considerable experience in processing recycled PET plastic and the high efficiency of their lines. Almost all of the blow molders in their seven bottling plants belong to the Krones Contiform series. The co-packer is also increasing its use of filling technology from the system supplier headquartered in Neutraubling. Since 2013, every new line installed at Ice River Springs has been from Krones, and most are in a block configuration. One of the latest additions to the bottler’s machinery fleet is a high-speed line with two ErgoBloc L systems at its Lachute, Quebec, plant.
As Sustainability Manager at Ice River Springs Co. and Blue Mountain Plastics, Crystal Howe has, of course, made sustainability a top priority. But she’s not alone. The entire company shares her passion. “Our philosophy is based on the three Ps: people, planet, and profit.” Howe firmly believes that coordinating the three Ps is crucial. “PET and plastics in general have been getting a lot of negative attention lately worldwide. But Ice River Springs is already ahead of the game. By completely reusing PET plastic in a closed loop, we’re being part of the solution.”
From farmers to water bottlers
You might say Crystal Howe’s loyalty to Ice River Springs has been instilled in her from birth. After all, she’s not only the company’s Sustainability Manager but also the daughter of Ice River Springs’ founders and owners, Jamie and Sandy Gott.
Her parents started out as farmers, raising chickens and trout in Feversham, two hours’ drive north of Toronto. The natural spring they used as a water source for the trout farm provided a supply of high-quality water, which Jamie and Sandy initially sold in bulk to water bottlers. At some point, they began bottling the water themselves on a small scale, in large HDPE containers.
Soon after that, Y2K loomed and an apocalyptic mood set in, driven largely by the media especially in North America. People feared that all computer systems would stop working on January 1, 2000. So they started stockpiling emergency supplies, including bottled water. Demand for Ice River Springs water exploded.
“My dad had the vision, and mom helped make them happen,” says Howe. They built one bottling plant after another, at first only in Canada and later in the US as well. Howe explains that Ice River Springs sold off four of its US plants in 2018, “because the market there works differently than in Canada.” The company still maintains a facility in Miami, Florida, in addition to its six plants across Canada – all of which are in close proximity to consumers to minimize transport distances.
The year 2009 was an important one for Ice River Springs as the company received a permission to use 100 percent recycled PET plastic in its water bottles. “We were the first bottler in North America to produce food-grade recycled PET and use it to manufacture 100 percent recycled content bottles. We’re still the only one to maintain a closed loop today,” Howe says with visible pride and she adds, “We’ve done it to protect the environment. What’s special about our company is that we don’t base our decisions primarily on cost but rather on sustainability.”
Closed plastics loop
Sandy and Jamie Gott tried a few different options before deciding to produce their own recycled PET. “PLA (polylactic acid) couldn’t offer the shelf life we needed, and it gave the water an off taste. Carton-based packaging isn’t easily recyclable and has a much larger carbon footprint,” says Howe. “We then started to use recycled PET, but the quality of the pellets we were buying on the open market wasn’t very consistent from batch to batch. So, my parents decided to build their own recycling plant and produce their own rPET.”
The company’s Blue Mountain Plastics plant now converts 25,000 metric tons of post-consumer PET material a year into food-grade resin pellets. Ice River Springs buys around 80 percent of the total volume of PET plastic collected by municipal recycling programs in Ontario for this purpose. Three of the company’s seven bottling plants are equipped with injection molders that turn the recycled pellets into preforms. All seven plants have Contiform blow molders that inflate the preforms into bottles. Ice River Springs also manufactures its own caps and printed shrink films, which already contain 20 percent recycled material. The company’s subsidiary C.R. Plastic Products transforms HDPE cap material, that is collected through the recycling line, into durable outdoor furniture. Every addition to the Ice River Family of Companies drives forth the belief that “there’s enough plastic in the world – we need to re-use it.”
108,000 containers per hour
Until recently, Ice River Springs had used one Krones/Kosme filling line for 4-liter containers and another for 500-milliliter bottles (which included a Contiform blow molder) at their Lachute plant, west of Montreal. Since the 500-milliliter line was no longer able to keep up with increased demand, Ice River Springs has now replaced it with a twin line featuring two ErgoBloc L systems that can process a total of 108,000 containers per hour. “We don’t have a lot of space here in Lachute. So this line’s compact layout was a perfect fit,” says Howe.
The line isn’t Ice River Springs’ first high-speed line from Krones. Back in 2002, the company installed one at its home base in Feversham. In 2016, they replaced that line with a new one featuring an ErgoBloc L for blow molding, labeling, and filling 81,000 containers per hour. The Miami plant has also had a 108,000-bph twin line from Krones in operation since 2018. That line is identical to the one just commissioned in Lachute.
High-speed twin line
In designing this turnkey line, Krones combined two 55,000-bph block systems for the wet end to bring the total capacity up to 108,000 PET bottles per hour. Each ErgoBloc L system consists of a Contiform 3 Pro stretch blow molder, a Solomodul labeler with four Contiroll HS stations, a Modulfill VFJ filler, and a Checkmat FEM-X inspector.
The two streams converge in the dry end, where the finished PET containers are processed. The Variopac Pro FS packer produces shrink packs in four different sizes. Palletizing is being handled by a Modulpal Pro 1AD with a Robobox grouping system.
The ErgoBloc L meets all of Ice River Springs’ expectations in terms of sustainability: “The machines process recycled PET plastic preforms with no problems,” explains Howe. “The bottles run as if they were made of virgin PET. We have actually had Krones technicians comment on how well the preform processes.”
High-speed line reduces costs
The aim is to run the line 24/7 and to consistently achieve 90 to 95 percent efficiency with the same number of operators a slower line would require. “Margins on bottled water are very narrow. That makes it all the more important to control cost with a high-speed line like this. Of course, when we’re looking at investing in a new line, we look at all the options. But it makes sense to use the same technologies in all of our plants,” says Howe. “Once you know and understand Krones’ machines, you won’t want anything else.” The Krones Academy supports the line ramp-up phase with specialized training to continuously improve line efficiency. Ice River Springs also has a service contract with Krones.
The twin line handles 500-milliliter containers exclusively. Ice River Springs developed the bottle in house following a “function over aesthetic” principle. “It just has to do its job as a container for water – although we still think it looks beautiful,” says Howe. The short-neck bottles weigh only 8.5 grams each, another important environmental criterion. “But we don’t want to reduce the weight any more than that since it would make it harder to separate the caps from the bottles in the recycling process.” Clear and transparent blue, purple, and yellow post-consumer PET plastic can be used to produce Ice River Spring’s blue bottles. Green plastic can’t be used in this bottle. Since green PET plastic makes up about five percent of the incoming recycling stream, Jamie Gott devised an alternative use for it instead of downcycling: Following their own ideal of sustainability, the company now produces a green 100 percent recycled PET plastic bottle that it uses for its own Ice River Springs brand. The company will now begin marketing the green bottle more heavily in Canada under the name Ice River Green Bottle Co.