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Environmentally Friendly Water Vending Machine Comes to PBB

A new environmentally friendly water vending machine has been installed in the Pappajohn Business Building (PBB) at The University of Iowa. The machine, called the Thirst Station, dispenses filtered, chilled water directly into a customer's own water bottle or cup.

The idea for the Thirst Station came from Solon resident Gretchen Swan, who attended the FastTrac entrepreneurial training program at the UI. Swan was concerned about the proliferation of single-use plastic water bottles and worked to find a vending machine that would fill water bottles and cups. The machine will be tested on a pilot basis in PBB to see if people find value in the service.

"My aim is to educate and motivate people who are choosing bottled water on a regular basis as to why changing how they drink water can make a difference. It's my hope that more people will use reusable bottles," Swan said. "With the Thirst Station, your thirst is quenched and there's no trash hangover."

The machine was installed Friday, Oct. 22 in the vending area of PBB next to Pat's Diner on the first floor. After a weeklong, free, trial period, users will pay 70 cents for 16 ounces of water, 85 cents for 20 ounces and $1 for 24 ounces. Marketing students in the Tippie College of Business will assist Swan with this green business by conducting market research with help from Dave Collins, a lecturer in the Department of Marketing.

This is Swan's first business venture, which grew out of a personal interest to reduce waste and find environmentally sound alternatives to single servings of bottled water. In an effort to be more environmentally friendly, she and her family started using refillable water bottles but soon became frustrated with the lack of options for refilling them on the go. Sometimes the water from drinking fountains tasted bad or only allowed her to fill bottles halfway because of the spout position. Also, she had some concerns about the sanitary conditions of the fountains used by her children.

Swan wanted to offer an alternative to disposable water bottles while still providing value and convenience, and started researching options for vending clean chilled water. She found a machine made in Europe that came close to what she wanted and with some exterior modification, it became the Thirst Station.

Next, she enrolled in the FastTrac entrepreneur training program offered through the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and wrote a business plan. Collins lectured in one of the FastTrac classes, and after she talked with him about her idea, he become interested in helping her promote the sustainable business.

After working with Collins, Swan was able to get the Thirst Station in PBB and secured the necessary vending agreements with the help of Charles Whiteman, senior associate dean in the Tippie College, and Liz Christiansen, director of the UI Office of Sustainability.

Swan said she's grateful for the opportunity to test the Thirst Station in a high-traffic area like PBB. Whiteman said, "It's a new opportunity for Tippie students to reduce, reuse, and recycle."

"Many of our students are interested in sustainability and already 'pack in' their own reusable water bottles. The Thirst Station will give them access to purified, chilled refills. The station may even encourage more students to carry reusable bottles," Whiteman said.

Students in Collins' marketing class will be working over the academic year to conduct marketing studies on the station and collect data on the usage. Students in the Tippie American Marketing Association chapter are also helping market the Thirst Station and are designing a logo to be placed on reusable water bottles for sale.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for business students to gain firsthand, real-life experience working with a green entrepreneur from Iowa. It's also an opportunity for Ms. Swan to gain important marketing information that can help her green business grow," Christiansen said.

The Thirst Station is more energy-efficient than other cold-beverage vending machines, using a flash chilling process for each serving. The Thirst Station also has the ability to dispense flavored waters, juices, and teas, but only water will be available in this pilot phase of the project.

For more information, see thirststation.com.


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