Donald Thomson, a 56-year-old, Canadian-born builder, entrepreneur, and self-taught designer, launched ‘A’Gua-brand water bottles in Costa Rica earlier this year. But he sees no contradiction in his current endeavor: converting reclaimed, custom-designed, PET plastic water bottles into roofing tiles that are filled with an insulating, lightweight mix of aerated concrete and waste paper, which can be tinted to simulate marble, slate, or ceramic tile. (He now also is exploring using corn stover, an agricultural waste, as a filler.)
Thomson has devised an innovative way to make the waste stream for one industry (the single-use beverage sector) into the value stream for another (the affordable housing market). He aims to be a poster boy for the circular economy.
“I wouldn’t even drink out of a plastic bottle,” he recounted in a recent telephone interview from his home in Belen, Costa Rica, where he and his wife, Terry-lee, moved 25 years ago. And he certainly had no intention of becoming a water industry executive.
After he relocated, Thomson worked through his building company, Harmony Developments, to create affordable housing across Latin America. He and his wife also founded and run a small community-development and classical-music school for children on Costa Rica’s west coast.
But five years ago his path took a strange and unexpected turn, when he organized a student beach cleanup in an impoverished part of Costa Rica. On that day in 2010, Thomson says, “We realized that when waste PET containers were flattened and put into rows they crudely resembled slate tiles. This realization inspired the long journey into what we call today the ‘bottle-to-tile’ project.”
Thomson created a new company—now called the Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration—and started working on designing a roof tile from discarded PET bottles.
“We worked backwards,” Thomson says, “first designing our tile, which dictated the resulting beverage container shape, which ultimately produced the wedged, rectangular flask profile of our ‘A’Gua bottle.”
The resulting bottle design proved to be distinctive and eye-catching, which has enhanced its shelf presence and contributed to consumer acceptance.
Mike Urquhart, a plastics molding and machinery expert and a 35-year veteran of the beverage packaging industry, is impressed. “I think it’s totally unique in the beverage industry—a product designed to be reused, rather than recycled. I’ve never seen anything close to it.” And not just being reused, he stressed, but potentially finding life for the next 50 years as roofing tiles on houses.
Urquhart, a fellow Canadian who spent his entire career working for equipment maker Husky Injection Molding Systems in Bolton, Ontario, struck out on his own last year, and now is a part-time consultant for CRDC.
Back in 2012, Thomson got busy applying his design skills to develop the bottle. “I bought every plastic bottle in the world I could find,” and tried to fold it into the desired shape. “I built cardboard prototypes, which taught me what the shape would have to be at the back, so it would fold in like I wanted.” He bought Solidworks software and brushed up on his 3-D drawing skills. Eventually, he won international patent protection for his design for a 700 ml bottle.
He next made molds and developed prototypes. “I wasted $6,000 trying to get this done long distance in India. Everything that you could do wrong in this, I’ve done,” he says, laughing.
Thomson then happened to find a local, long-established blow molding company in Costa Rica that built six molds for him and helped to get the tooling just right. But the owners of that firm got in over their heads with U.S. private equity, and two weeks after they started molding Thomson’s bottle, the firm ran out of money and shut down.
He persisted, found another manufacturing option, and embarked on molding trials. Initially, Thomson encountered a 70 percent reject rate, due to the difficult radius on the bottom of the bottle. He made endless design modifications and production tweaks, and finally, in November 2013, began successfully molding the current version of unusually shaped ‘A’Gua bottles in Costa Rica.
The bottle, whose “bubble” design near the top was created to enable the plastic to fill the mold properly, has no shoulder and is filled right to the top. As it happens, Thomson said, the bubble refracts the light passing through it, and helps to create an optical, magnifying effect so that the PET container tends to look like glass or ice.
So CRDC had its bottle—but could they fold it? Would it fold every time into a tile? Achieving that was another year-long process.
“We designed an ugly, mechanical crimping device, did a 3-D scan of it and from it developed a special jaw to use for bending the bottles. We then got involved with engineering students at Seattle University, who developed a manual press that can be used to fold the bottles every time—bang, bang, bang—with no additional energy needed. That was huge for me,” Thomson said, explaining how he’d like, for example, to be able send a container of water bottles to Nepal, along with one of these folding devices, so locals could immediately start converting bottles to tiles.
Now that the crimping device works well, automating it will be easy, he said. The bigger challenge was getting every bottle to fold exactly right, to yield a 12 mm front edge, providing a polished, consistent, architectural look to the tiles. Thomson said it will not be difficult to put a number of these crimping devices in a row and automate them, with the goal being to be able to fold the bottles as fast as they can be blow molded.
Right now, CRDC can make 400 bottles per hour, but quickly could double that production rate. Thomson says they’re prepared to ramp up as demand warrants.
The company struck a deal to supply the high-end grocery chain Auto Mercado in Costa Rica with the ‘A’Gua bottle, and the product hit the shelves this past February, at a price of about $1.38 each, or roughly the same as a high-end sports bottle.
“What I’ve learned in my journey is that you had better have a story if you want to get into the water business—and it better be a legitimate one, like we have. And there aren’t many of them.”
CRDC also has patented the construction method for applying the tiles to roofs. The tiles are attached in rows, on 3-foot-wide by 12-foot-long rolls, and can be rolled out into place on the house.
“That’s what I do—I’m a construction technologist. We’ve built enough now to know that we are more than happy with the construction product.” What has slowed the project down has been the need to raise the capital to start a housing program, which Thomson considers a critical part of the puzzle.
“We definitely plan on building 40 units during 2016.” The plan is to build “very humble housing,” using 10,000 bottles per house. “Our schedule is to have all the funding in place by December 1. We’re actively building roofs now, just not houses yet.”
He says the intention is not just to reuse the materials, but to recycle all the money, as well. “If you have the right story, and you sell a lot of water, it’s a very profitable business—the margins are incredible.” Thomson’s plan is to reinvest that money into his housing projects: build a house, lease it to someone for three years, prepare them for a mortgage, and then get all his money back.
“My dream … I talk about REAP: Recover, Enrich, Appreciate, Prosper. When you build someone a house, you need to make sure it’s going to appreciate in value, or you’re only going to make them poorer.”
This is how Thomson squares his ideals with his current business. He sees the plastic bottle as a means to an end.
“If I can take the plastic and upcycle it into an incredible, appreciating building product that stays out of the waste stream, then I’m happy,” he said.
“This year in Costa Rica we’re going to be really dedicated to the entire cycle, from picking up bottles off the beach to building houses. And I believe we’ll have one of the very best examples of the circular economy—of upcycling—in the world.”
“We just got started,” Thomson acknowledges, “but people are recognizing that, ‘Wow, this has really got some potential. This could be a game-changer.’” And to think, he notes, “It all started because I hated plastic bottles.”