You’ve seen the Elkay bottle refill stations. They seem to be everywhere: in schools, offices, gyms, and especially in airports. First rolled out by the Illinois plumbing fixture company Elkay in 2010, over 1 million ezH2O bottle refill stations were manufactured and installed by 2021.
There’s even one at my local hot yoga studio, which I’ve been happily using since the studio opened in 2016. One day, as I stood in front of it filling my bottle, my eyes alighted on the small green display with black pixelated numbers, like a vintage calculator. It said: “Helped eliminate waste from 451,320 disposable plastic bottles.”
Really? This humble wall-mounted bottle refill station in the back of a yoga studio had saved almost a half-million plastic water bottles? The claim seemed suspect.
This gnawed at me for a long while until I finally decided to investigate. Perhaps this was the next big scandal involving greenwashing—the widespread practice of marketing something based on a false representation of its environmental impact.
I got on the phone with Brandon, a mechanical engineer who asked me not to share his last name because his employer, a government agency, has a strict policy against unauthorized press interviews. He noticed at the beginning of this year that the refill station at his office said it had saved over 13 million bottles since 2016.
His office has a maximum capacity of 100 people—and has been running at 20 to 30 percent capacity since the pandemic. To hit the number on the Elkay display, every employee would have had to come in every workday (excluding the year of the pandemic) and fill their water bottle more than 100 times.
“There are two options,” he says. “Worst case, they’re intentionally driving up that number through unrealistic means, straight lying through their teeth. Best case, they’re just doing a really bad job at this estimation.”
So how is this estimation done? Elkay says in its marketing materials that it counts 20 ounces of water poured into a reusable bottle as one plastic bottle saved. But in January 2020, WIRED’s resident physicist Rhett Allain found that the ticker went up by one bottle after just 16.9 ounces of water came out of the machine. That’s a difference of 15 percent.
Brandon found the installation manual for the bottle refill station, which states that it takes about five seconds for the ticker to go up one bottle, leading him to believe the counter is based on time instead of exact ounces dispensed.
I reached out to Elkay for more information. The company’s publicist was at first happy to find me a product manager for an interview, but then came back saying Elkay didn’t want to participate in my story. The company was concerned it might impact some upcoming product launches.
I also messaged some former employees of Elkay, but all either didn’t respond, or demurred, saying they weren’t close enough to that particular engineering team to know how the ticker count works.
The Green Ticker certainly pleases environmentally-minded folks who use it by making them feel good that they are keeping plastic out of landfills. But they aren’t the target market. Usually, the interior design firm or whoever runs facilities choose things like this. I wanted to know their motivation behind choosing one of these machines and not one by a competitor like Oasis. Is the Green Ticker (a term trademarked by Elkay) helping make the sale?
I mentioned my research to my husband, an architect at an interior design firm that does high-end hotels, and he emailed me from his office when he found out his team was choosing the Elkay bottle refill station for the gym of a Middle East hotel. I asked what the team thought about the Green Ticker. “Nothing,” he wrote back. “As long as it provides clean, drinkable water that fills up a water bottle, and senses when to stop and not spill water out and create a mess in the space, that is what we care about.”
But perhaps it’s a different calculation for a more civic-minded building? The next day, by luck or kismet, a high school buddy mentioned her old job was doing facilities planning for a 3-million-square-foot campus for the exact same government agency where Brandon works, albeit a different campus. Excited, I asked her whether she had any hand in choosing the Elkay filling machines, but she said the campus she worked on would never have water fountains that require so much maintenance.
You see, those Elkay bottle fill stations require that the filter be changed out periodically. The filter is a selling point for school systems that are worried about lead and other contaminants in their drinking water. But the filter can also slow the flow rate if it’s not changed, as sediment builds up inside it. The slower the flow rate gets, the more inaccurate the count of bottles saved.
“A lot of times those are calculated based on peak efficiency,” she explained. “Also, if they’re not changing the filters, gross. So if you see a slow-flowing water bottle refill station, you might want to think hard about using it.”
To continue my reporting, I returned to my yoga studio and snapped photographic evidence of the two bottle refill stations on either side of the hallway. One said 66,906 bottles saved. The other said 532,065.
I explained my quest to my yoga teacher, Lyss, and the other woman working the counter, Radhika. Lyss mused that the refill station at her Brooklyn circus school has never been changed, rendering it almost unusable. Energized, Radhika swung into action, pulling numbers for me on classroom capacity since 2016, when the studio opened, until today, and average utilization rates. If each person who took a class filled their water bottle instead of buying a water bottle, total bottles saved would be almost 709,000. OK, those numbers displayed on the Elkay machines were possible, I conceded.
But! Why the huge disparity between water fountains? Could the one next to the women’s locker room really get almost 10 times as much use as the one near the men’s room? On my next trip to the studio, I skulked in the hallway, surreptitiously recording the usage of the two water fountains. During the half-hour between classes, 19 people used the fountain next to the women’s room, and 18 used the one next to the men’s room.
Maybe this was the smoking gun I needed to prove that the Elkay Green Tickers are wildly inaccurate, but there were other factors to consider. Could the one with the lower count have been reset at some point, or the machine replaced? Some particularly sweaty people refill their bottles multiple times each visit, so 1 million bottles saved is possible. But even if that’s not the case, do the inflated numbers on the display count as greenwashing?
My friend the facilities planner didn’t think so. “It might not be entirely accurate, but you are saving plastic waste. Where is the harm in that? It might be 100 percent off, but it’s still 100 percent better than wasting a plastic water bottle.”
Brandon felt the same. “In my opinion, if you’re going to put a counter on the front of your machine, you would hope it’s accurate. But that’s my engineering side of things.” He uses the filler every day he’s at the office, and likes the idea of not using disposable plastic bottles—or wasting money on them. “I don’t need a counter to tell me I’m saving disposable bottles. I already know that.”
Case closed. We may not have saved as many plastic water bottles as the machines boast. But we’ve definitely saved a lot. So you carry on filling your bottle. In a world with so much bad news, it’s one thing you can feel good about.