Sponsored Podcast: Brought to You by TAPP Water
Magnus Jern, chief water drinker at London-based TAPP Water, explains the company’s TAPP 2 biodegradable water faucet filters. In this podcast transcript, Jern discusses TAPP Water filters, how they decompose in industrial compost piles quickly and will break down in backyard compost piles. We also talk through the real and perceived risks in drinking tap water. Unfortunately, American families spend more than $5.5 billion on plastic-bottled water unnecessarily because they are concerned about water quality. They pay between 300 and 2,000 times more than tap water costs for plastic-bottled water. A faucet filter can eliminate plastic pollution and save hundreds of dollars annually.
The transcript of the interview follows. If you’d like to listen to the interview, click the Play button on the podcast player below.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Hello. Welcome to Sustainability in Your Ear. It’s the Earth 911 podcast and I’m Mitch Ratcliffe. Welcome back. We have another conversation with an innovative sustainability leader today, Magnus Jern, who is chief water drinker at TAPPWater.co. This is a company that has developed the first biodegradable, compostable, smart water filter for the faucet. Welcome, Magnus. Thanks for joining us today.
Magnus Jern: Thank you for having me.
Mitch Ratcliffe: What does the chief water drinker do at a company? Let’s start with that.
Magnus Jern: I think in our case, it’s really all about being passionate about drinking water, knowing as much as there possibly is to know about drinking water throughout the world, whether it’s tap water or bubble water. And a large part of that is drinking a lot of water.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Oh then, so you’re well hydrated and think of water all day long.
Magnus Jern: Yes, and I think we should all know more about water considering that it makes up more than 60 percent of our bodies and it’s the thing that we consume the most of and we wouldn’t survive without. And the fact that most people probably know more about coffee than they know about water.
Mitch Ratcliffe: True. Water is a controversial topic because when it’s found to be unsafe, it really creates a strong impression in the public. But on the whole, water is generally safe all over the world except for about 800 million people who don’t have clean or running water right now. Yet bottled water has become a $16 billion industry and produces a massive amount of plastic pollution, much of which is ending up in the oceans. Now, what was the incentive, or what was it that got you going, instigated the TAPP Water Project? And tell us, first and foremost, how’s TAPP Water’s faucet filter different than the other?
Magnus Jern: The first thing, if you look at probably the most used water filter today at home, it’s the Brita carafe for a pitcher. Which you should be replacing your cartridge or your filter every month or so, which actually most people don’t, so that’s one problem. But if you do, then it generates plastic waste every time you do. That’s kind of one starting point. Our feeling was if we’re going to replace bottled water with a water filter, then ideally it should be something that leaves zero waste.
Mitch Ratcliffe: So you have two versions of the TAPP 2 available in the United States, the Twist and the Click. The Twist is a mechanical device, essentially has a calendar to remind you to change that filter. The Click has a Bluetooth connection. It’s actually a wireless device that will talk to your phone tell you about how much water you’re using. One of the things it does is show the savings over buying bottled water. Now, there’s been a lot of research on the perception of water in the United States. As a result of fear of their drinking water, Americans spend about $5.6 billion a year on unneeded bottled water. You’re counting on helping people understand how they’re saving water and how they’re reducing the plastic pollution. But tell us what the output of the filter is. How clean is the water coming through your filters and what does it allow through that you need in your body that may not be available from bottled water, for instance?
Magnus Jern: First of all, most of the tap water in the U.S. as it is in Europe is perfectly clean and safe and healthy to drink. I shouldn’t say perfectly clean because nothing is perfectly clean. There’s always something, there’s always some contaminants, but it’s safe to drink. The focus really of our filter is to remove one aesthetic thing that might make the water taste bad or smell bad. The second thing is to protect from things that might be added from the pipes along the way, so after the water company has delivered the water. So, it might have been safe when it came out of the water plant, but it’s not when it comes out of your tap.
To give you some examples of both. The first part is that it’s typically chlorine or chloramine or some of the metal taste that can come from the pipes. And the second part, probably the most common thing that we talk about is lead in the pipes, which I already said. That’s why we think it’s really important to protect from these particular contaminants.
Mitch Ratcliffe: You filter down to two microns. What can you stop with a two-micron filter and what gets through that such as minerals that we actually do want in our water?
Magnus Jern: Examples of that, that actually we get a pretty significant amount from tap water, is magnesium is the top one. I think it’s around 20 percent of your total mineral consumption can come from water, and then calcium, which is more like 10 percent to 15 percent. So those two are probably the most important. But then there are lots of other minerals that come through as well, but they’re probably not significant enough to make a difference in reality.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Another thing that you are filtering out is microplastics, and I think that’s an important one, one that particularly for folks who are thinking about bottled water as an alternative, which has been found to include micro plastics almost 90 percent of the time by some research. It’s an increasingly ubiquitous pollutant in the world. Is that something that you’re pulling out of the water as well before it gets to the glass?
Magnus Jern: Definitely. That was really one important part of developing the latest versions of the filters was to make sure that at least the microplastics that we have been able to detect today … Or media study that they published, I think the beginning of the year, they found microplastics in 92 percent of all the tap water in the United States and 93 percent of the bottled water. So actually, bottled water was worse. It was down to about three, four microns, the smallest pieces. Most of them were significantly larger. So, all of those would be filtered out.
Mitch Ratcliffe: You’re capturing all that?
Magnus Jern: Yes.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Now let’s turn to the filters themselves. They are smart, biodegradable and in a way, they’re a coach. They help you understand how much water you’re consuming. So, let’s talk about the body of it. You have essentially a 65 percent compostable water faucet filter that screws onto the filter. We’re not just talking about the replacement filter, but the entire body of the unit, that screws onto the faucet can be broken down afterward. You’ve got some steel and some ABS plastic that would need to be separated, but can also be recycled. So essentially you got a 100 percent recyclable device that you can add to your water kit to create a safer, more pleasureful experience. Tell us about each of the components here, and let’s start with what screws on the faucet. What’s involved in the installation other than screwing it on?
Magnus Jern: This is not entirely … the faucet filter is not an entirely new invention, obviously. There are other companies out there like Brita and Pur are probably the most known ones in the U.S. So, the shape or the functionality is quite similar. What we’ve really focused on, because it’s been a big problem with the other filters, is leakage and that they’re not stable. So, we really made sure that the stand, the design is extremely robust when you screw it on.
You can basically install it in less than a minute. Anyone, 95 percent of our customers have no problems at all. There might be a few that need a bit of help or they need an extra adapter, but that’s pretty much it. And once it’s screwed on, all you do is you switch on the water, the first time you let it run through for maybe half a minute so that it washes out the filter, and then after that, you’re good to go. You can just switch it on and off whenever you need it. When you switch it on, you get the filtered water or if you switch it off, you can do the dishes or something else.
If you look at the different components, so the cartridge that fits inside it is something that is replaceable with normal household consumption, it normally needs to be replaced about every three months. It’s about 300 gallons of water that it can handle. It’s also optimized to handle a really high throughput, which has been another issue with a lot of the existing filters. People feel that it takes too long to fill up a glass of water or something like that, so we’re doing over a gallon per minute, which is still less, obviously, than the faucet, but it’s high compared to other filters. That’s something that people really appreciate.
Another aspect of it was what we found was that a lot of people just don’t know when to replace the filters, or don’t trust the signals that they’re getting from the device. Some of them have a small light that goes on and off, but what we found was that people feel like they’re getting tricked into replacing the filters too early or just based on time. So, we created instead is a system where you put in the number of people that live in the household and how intensive your water usage is, and then based on that, it will guide you to when you need to replace the filter. We try to do it as scientifically as possible to make sure that it’s really a replacement that needs to be replaced and that people feel that they’re engaging with it.
Plus, it also tells them everything they do, with how much money they saved in terms of replacing bottled water, as well as how many bottles of water they could have used otherwise, carbon footprint reduction and other elements. We see that that really encourages people to continue to use it and to continue to avoid bottled water because they’re feeling that they’re doing something good. So that’s a really important part of it when it comes to behavioral change.
Mitch Ratcliffe: This app is called MyTAPP, and it loads on the iPhone and Android.
Magnus Jern: Or on the web as well so you don’t have to use the app.
Mitch Ratcliffe: To talk to the filter, though, the Click, the one with the Bluetooth. Now, this is actually interacting with the filter and it’s measuring the water going through and telling you when you need to change the filter. It’s got some other really cool features like finding water fountains near you when you’re out of the house, too so that you can fill up again. This app is intriguing because it’s also kind of a coach. It helps you understand what you’re doing in the case of maintaining the cleanliness of the filter. Do you anticipate building other kinds of capabilities into that app over time about hydration and…
Magnus Jern: Definitely. I think we’re really listening to what people are interested in and what customers want in terms of improving their lives and continuing to encourage them to get fresh and safe drinking water. In the future, we will be putting more sensors into them as well, so we can actually measure the water quality. So that’s a big part of what we’re looking to do. I think we’re still, we’re a bit away from that, but we’ll get there within the next year or so.
Mitch Ratcliffe: This is, of course, sustainability is going to be enabled by technology, our ability to measure what we’re doing because it will give us increasing feedback and help us understand how to use the resources, the limited resources that we have on the planet. The mechanical version of the TAPP, the TAPP 2 Twist, has what I would equate to be like an old-fashioned cooking timer on it. You click it up to the period of time that you want to be reminded that the filter needs to be changed and it just counts down. With the Bluetooth device, you’ve added a battery and you’ve added obviously a chip of some sort to talk to the Bluetooth. Is that something that is going to be recyclable as well when you’re doing this?
Magnus Jern: That is kind of a complaint from some customers that want to be completely sustainable. That obviously most people use a mobile phone today. Most people use computers. It’s very difficult to avoid microchips and radio signals. But we really wanted to give people the option and say look, you don’t have to have technology inside of it if you don’t want to. Here’s the manual version that will work for you as well. Same filtering capabilities. But we also think it’s important to leverage the technology today to create customer interaction and to really build on that. So, we think that there are pros and cons of both, but we wanted to offer the options right now. One of the things that we want to do in the future as well is seeing can we remove the battery by powering it through a turbine instead, which should be possible.
Mitch Ratcliffe: I was wondering if you were going to go there because you obviously have a flow that you could run power off of in the device. That’s an intriguing possibility. You hit an important issue which is there are trade-offs in every product and you may get actually more efficiency out of the radio enabled one because you’re tracking your usage more carefully. You may actually be coached to reduce your water on a real-time basis, and of course, you’re healthier, you’re changing your filters on time.
Magnus Jern: That’s the feeling as well. The average household will reduce the number of bottles by probably around 700 to 800 bottles a year, so if you look at that, I think it’s worth the trade-off of a small microchip and a battery, as long as that’s recycled in the right place.
Mitch Ratcliffe: That brings me to the filters themselves. When you change them, you talked about the fact that previous versions of filters included plastic. You’ve got a carbon block technology for your filters that will also break down in two to eight weeks in an industrial compost pile. How did you come up with that technology and how did you test it to find out that it really does break down in that period of time?
Magnus Jern: First of all, I think it’s important for us to note that not all carbon blocks or activated carbon technologies are created equal. There’s been a lot of improvements in terms of water filtration just over the last three to four years. Previously, it wasn’t really possible to filter out lead and heavy metals using carbon blocks. It was also really hard to get the micron rating down without reducing the pressure and lots of other things, so we’ve worked really hard on finding the latest and greatest materials to make this work so that it really removes as many contaminants as possible.
But then at the same time, using organic materials. So, it uses coconut shells as the basis, which today is the most efficient activated carbon in terms of removing or absorbing contaminants. The other nice thing about that is that it’s organic. The other part of it, typically, you have a plastic casing made of ABS that is pretty thick. Instead, we made it out of PLA so biodegradable plastics that will biodegrade in an industrial compost in about two to eight weeks. If you put it somewhere else, on a landfill, it would probably take a couple of years, but it will still not leave any waste over time. Even if it doesn’t go in the right place, at least it breaks down and becomes nothing over time, or it goes back to organic material.
There are still some small inert materials in there that we haven’t been able to replace entirely, so we use some silicon, but we are working on removing the silicon completely as well so that it’s entirely compostable over time.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Silicon is essentially an inorganic material in terms of it’s completely inert. It’s not organically active.
Magnus Jern: It’s not, but it doesn’t count as a compostable material, either. There are very strict requirements on this in some states like California, so we want to try to get as close as possible to those requirements over time.
Mitch Ratcliffe: The other final really, I think, interesting version of the characteristic of the device is that you can subscribe to update replacement filters so that as the device is tracking your usage, it’s also making sure that you’ve got the supplies to refill them. Let’s talk a little about the price. The TAPP Click and the TAPP Twist are respectively $59 and $49 to purchase, and you can buy it online. But you can also subscribe for an additional $30 a year for a complete set of replacements. How does that work? Do you get one box of filters or do you get a filter every couple of months? What’s the user experience with the subscription?
Magnus Jern: It’s really interesting what I think that we’ve found is that people want to live as simple lives as possible. They don’t want to have to remember to reorder stuff. On the other hand, they don’t really like being charged for things every month, either. So, we found the nice middle ground here with an annual subscription, so you get a package sent to your house which will last one year. We tell you when to replace your cartridges, and then after one year, we ask you if you want to continue using the filter and continue with the subscription and then we send you another yearly package. We found that people are super happy with that. The setup is actually that if you sign up straight away for the annual subscription, then it costs I think $89 or $79 the first year including cartridges for one year and then it’s actually $60 per year after that.
Mitch Ratcliffe: So you’re getting a discount on your filters the first year and then a little less discount, but the convenience is that you get a box, it’s in your pantry, and you can change it whenever the filter tells you that you need a new cartridge.
Magnus Jern: Yeah, and if you think about it in the end, it’s $5 per month approximately. In comparison, I think the average spent on bottled water is about $280. It’s probably a lot higher for households that only consume bottled water. The average is really across all households.
Mitch Ratcliffe: So less than a cup of coffee a month for clean water?
Magnus Jern: Yeah, so everyone is going to save money it, for sure.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Magnus, this has been a fascinating conversation. This is a really innovative technology. It’s great to see the idea of biodegradability in physical products that we’re putting into our home. Are there any thoughts that you want to share with people who particularly are worried about their water and the quality of their water today and what they should do, whether it’s testing or validating the safety of their water before they make a decision about buying a bottle of water?
Magnus Jern: Spend some time really reading up official material from organizations like the World Health Organization or EPA or others and look at what their recommendations are because they’ve spent a lot of time looking at this. And yes, of course, there’s going to be that there are contaminants or that there are chemicals like fluoride which are very controversial, but you’re just going to have to make a decision on what you care about or we don’t care about. In most cases, as we said before, the water is safe to drink. Of course, it’s also, and it’s an insane way, that the air outside, or in your home, is relatively safe, but there are contaminants in that as well. So, everything has some kind of risk associated with it. I think that’s the first thing.
A water filter is a kind of insurance. It will make sure that most of the potential contaminants that you might get into your body, that it will move away so you don’t have to worry about that anymore. If you’re really worried about what kind of water you have, then send us or send someone else the lab testing report, and you can get a big lab test for about, in some cases, you get them free of charge from your water company. In other cases, you might have to pay a little bit of money to send it into a lab. But send that to us and we’ll have a look at it and tell you in a straightforward way whether your water is safe to drink and whether a filter like ours would work.
I think that it’s really important to make it as fact-based decision and not just you know, my water tastes bad or I think your end is bad, or something like that.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Or somebody just told me that the water is messed up. Those reports are available from water districts. Generally, they’re mailed out annually if you folks haven’t received one. You can call your water utility and get it, a report. This is the question that Magnus is really raising, is it worth 300 to 2,000 times as much for bottled water compared to the TAPP. And bottled water carries so many other carbon impacts in terms of the petroleum used, the refinement of the petroleum, the plastics that go into the ocean. A faucet filter is a potentially great way to give yourself that sense of assurance that you need that your water’s going to be safe while simultaneously doing something that’s much better for the planet.
Magnus Jern, thanks very much for joining us on Sustainability in Your Ear.
Magnus Jern: Thank you so much. We have a lot of work to do going forward. There are about 50 million American households drinking bottled water still, so I think together we can do something about that.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, let’s continue telling the story. We look forward to having you back on the show. Thanks, Magnus.
Magnus Jern: Thank you very much.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And that’s Sustainability in Your Ear for today. This is Mitch Ratcliffe. Stay tuned to the podcast station. We’re on iTunes, SoundCloud, as well as others. Take care.
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Feature image: TAPP Water