The Startup That Wants to Sell You a Subscription to Miami Beach Tap Water Explains Itself

A Woosh Water fountain in Miami Beach.
Is this a water fountain? Or a public policy failure? Woosh Water

After years of rallying volunteers to clean up trash on the shores of Miami Beach, Dara Schoenwald came to have a low opinion of the bottled water industry, whose weather-worn plastic containers litter waterways, beaches, and wetlands around American cities. (And everywhere else.)

Unfortunately, most Americans do not share her opinion. In 2016, for the first time, Americans drank more bottled water than soda. In 2017, bottled water consumption grew again to 13.7 billion gallons—a 7 percent increase year over year. Sales jumped 8.8 percent year over year in 2017, to $18.5 billion, according to the International Bottled Water Association, an industry group.

Working with the Israeli start-up Woosh, Schoenwald has developed and deployed what she views as a rival product for eco-friendly drinkers disgusted with plastic waste. “Automated O3-based innovative purification.” “Accurate bottle fill.” “Sensors that detect bottle presence.” “The Smart Logic Controller spins the water inside the station.” “A control center that remotely controls and monitors activity 24/7.”

“It’s a brand-new concept. There’s really been anything like this,” Schoenwald, who directs marketing and outreach for Woosh, said of the company’s stations, which dispense water around Miami Beach with the swipe of a credit card and the push of a button.

There is at least a passing similarity to a water fountain, I ventured.

“No, it’s not similar to a water fountain in many ways,” she responded. “We are an alternative to plastic bottled water. You bring your own bottle and get a purified, chilled, great-tasting water product in an environmental friendly way at the fraction of the cost.”

Of course, Miami Beach has been dispensing water product for generations. Elizabeth Wheaton, the city’s environmental director, emphasized that the Woosh concession, which rolled out a year ago, only complements the municipal effort to provide free water. At 50 cents a fill (or slightly lower, with a subscription), a fill-up from one of Woosh’s 17 Miami Beach locations may be a fraction of the cost of a Dasani or an Evian, but it’s 50 cents more than all you can drink from the city’s own fountains. (Both facilities draw from the municipal water supply.)

But that’s not the market Woosh is competing for, Schoenwald says. Bottled water consumers want ice-cold, filtered product, she suggested. “One of the ways we communicate that we’re a substitute for bottled water is the design of the station,” she notes. “It has a touchscreen, it has lots of bells and whistles.” (It has a special option to rinse your bottle, for example.) How many converts have opted to refill with Woosh? Schoenwald would only say that the usage has grown steadily in the year since rollout.

Two years ago, I wrote about Reefill, a plan to bring a bluetooth-activated filtered tap water subscription service to New York. (That start-up appears to be dormant.) This project raises many of the same questions: On the one hand, any challenge to the extremely unethical bottled water industry is welcome. On the other, it is hard not to groan at such endeavors as symptoms of the public failure to provide cool, year-round, well-designed water fountains in convenient locations. Free public drinking water ought to be a right.

And yet, and yet, bottled water is such an enormous scam that I can hardly begrudge the folks at Woosh from trying to dress Miami Beach tap water in tails. With the average American drinking 42 gallons of bottled water a year, why not take a shot? In a piece in the Atlantic on the rise of status-symbol water bottles, Amanda Mull notes that research shows conspicuous consumption motivates consumers to be more environmentally friendly. Your environmental bona fides make good social media content. What could be more conspicuous than subscription water fountains, transforming tap water into a Veblen good, one for which demand increases with price? It’s a lousy world we live in, and maybe one solution to ubiquitous plastic waste lies in tricking rich people into drinking tap water for the ‘Gram.