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Alaska Glacier Products Exports Value-Added Water

Sea Lion subsidiary roars with Eklutna Glacier melt success


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The Alaska Glacier Products water bottling factory and distribution center.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Glacier Products

In a nondescript metal building just off the Eklutna exit on the Glenn Highway, a few miles north of Anchorage, the rumble of a robotic assembly line echoes between the walls. A handful of workers monitors the process, keeping careful watch on the snaking lines of plastic bottles as they are expanded, sterilized, labeled, filled, and grouped for bulk packaging.

Welcome to one of Alaska’s few value-added manufacturing facilities and one of the few beverage bottling plants in the state. Welcome to Alaska Glacier Products, where high quality bottled water is processed and packaged for domestic and international markets.

 

Value Added

When most people think of Alaska, they think only of Alaska’s natural resources: oil, fish, and minerals. They imagine shipping containers and tankers filled with raw material being transported to other states or nations for refinement and processing. They don’t think of factories or manufacturing plants. They don’t think of value added products. But the owners and operators of this particular facility aren’t stuck in that mindset. Nor are they ignorant about what it takes to market and promote the product. Chief Executive Officer Joseph Van Treeck  and Vice President of Sales Greg Galik are both veterans in this particular game.

Years ago, Matanuska Maid established the first foray into preparing beverages for export. In the 1990s, that now-defunct company launched a bottled water operation to take advantage of equipment that was already in use for milk. However, the product line never quite took off, and in 2007 Matanuska Maid ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy.

Both Galik and Van Treeck had experience working with Matanuska Maid’s bottled water venture. When the bottling equipment went on the auction block, Galik and his wife Lynn Alingham saw an opportunity and purchased it. The couple believed in the product and observed the increasing markets for bottled water, especially in Asia. Due to the deep recession in 2008, it took a few years for them to raise the capital to begin operations as Alaska Brands. Alingham had left her career in law and become a certified plant operator, and Galik handled the marketing end, promoting Alaska bottled water in California and in Asia under the name Clearly Alaskan.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Sea Lion—an Alaska Native Corporation based in Hooper Bay—purchased a derelict plant at the base of Eklutna for the purpose of making bottled water as Alaska Glacier Products. In 2013, Sea Lion negotiated with Galik and Alingham to purchase their company. It was a friendly merger—both enterprises saw the advantages of cooperation instead of competition. Greg Galik became the vice president of sales and a shareholder for Sea Lion’s subsidiary. Now, in 2014, the company is a world-class provider of bottled water and the only such company in Alaska. It is also one of the few manufacturers exporting a value-added product from the state.

 

Pure Glacier Water

As any entrepreneur knows, a successful business requires a successful product. The water sold by Alaska Glacier Products comes from Eklutna Lake, the same source utilized by the Municipality of Anchorage for city drinking water. Unlike most surface water sources, Eklutna Lake receives most of its contents from the melting of Eklutna Glacier. According to Galik, the water that comes from the glacier is old, the runoff from snow and ice laid down thousands of years ago. The ancient precipitation was frozen long before the pollutants and chemicals of industrial civilization saturated the atmosphere and the aquifers. It’s a demonstrably purer source than non-glacial lakes, groundwater, or artesian springs.

Water is siphoned from the lake via hydrotube, which is located below the depth of the winter ice. It is pressure fed to the Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility (AWWU) plant, where the particulates are removed by flocculation and filters. At this point, the water destined for the city is treated with chlorine and injected with fluoride, all according to government rules. Alaska Glacier Products purchases water from AWWU after the initial treatment but before the chemicals are added. Tankers drive down the road to the Eklutna bottling plant. The water is then run through additional purification via ozone infiltration, arguably better than chlorine for disinfecting purposes. In addition, the only waste product is oxygen—ozone is simply three oxygen molecules, a more unstable form than the normal steady-state of two molecules, which is in the air we breathe. When the ozone breaks apart, it releases only oxygen gas.

After the ozone treatment, the water is piped to where it is injected into bottles. The bottles themselves have already gone through rigorous preparation before reaching this point. They arrive in boxes from the Lower 48 in the form of finger-like molds with a screw top. The molds are heated to soften the plastic and then inflated into the required size and shape. Coming out of the inflator, they look like the familiar bottles you find on the grocery store shelves.

 

The automated line at the Alaska Glacier Products factory.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Glacier Products

 

The bottles are directed to a giant hopper for interim storage. From there, they are poured into a descrambler, which turns them upright and sends them down the line for disinfecting, labeling, and filling. Individual bottles are grouped into cases of twenty-four, shrink-wrapped, and stacked on a pallet. A pallet holds seventy cases, and twenty pallets fill a shipping container. An observer who moves quickly can follow the process from mold to case. At half speed, the assembly line can generate seven thousand finished bottles per hour.

The conveyors, mechanical arms, and moving lines of bottles are almost hypnotic. Employees are stationed at key junctures to keep an eye on the process and exercise quality control, but the system is fully automated. At this point in time, the plant is operating below capacity. They have plenty of room to grow and expand as their markets increase and demand drives up production.

 

Computerized monitoring of operations.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Glacier Products

 

Highly Recyclable

Bottled water has gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years. The fact that plastic bottles have entered the waste stream in ever-increasing numbers has drawn the attention of trash-conscious consumers. When I mentioned this to the number two man for Alaska Glacier Products: Chief Operations Officer Terry Clark, he pointed out that the PET plastic is highly recyclable. “Everything comes in plastic bottles these days—soda pop, detergents, salad dressing—it’s only bottled water that is getting the flack.” According to Clark, that’s because some people have the idea that bottled water is no different than the stuff that comes out of the tap at home. There have been companies that have misrepresented their bottled water product as something it isn’t—large, successful beverage companies eager to cash in on the new popularity of bottled water by simply taking a municipal water source and putting it into containers.

None of this is true of Alaska Glacier Products. Although purchased directly from AWWU, the water has never been near a tap. Eklutna Lake, while open for recreational purposes, doesn’t allow motorized watercraft, so there’s no chance of petrochemical pollution. As mentioned earlier, the glacier itself is composed of highly pure material. Very few companies can claim this kind of inherently clean source.

In addition, the processing plant itself generates very little waste: packaging materials and defective product containers make up the lion’s share: cardboard, paper, and plastic. Everything that can be recycled—which is most of it—is recycled. The plant even pays the local recycling company a fee to come and pick it up.

In the Alaska tradition, the plant itself is largely self-sufficient. The nearest manufacturer’s equipment mechanic is down in the Lower 48; waiting weeks for a part or a repairman doesn’t make practical sense. Therefore, all maintenance is done in-house; a full machine shop is on site to fabricate needed parts. The workers are taught how to maintain and fix the machines they oversee. They have a stake in the productivity of the equipment.

 

Inside the Alaska Glacier Products factory.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Glacier Products

 

Changing Market

The market for food and beverages is changing, with a greater focus on sustainability and accountability. “It’s not like when I was growing up. Back then, we just ate what was put in front of us. Now, people are becoming more aware of what they put in their mouths. Today’s consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it’s delivered, and how it was made. They’re a lot more savvy, and they know what they want,” Galik says.

He points out that this product has no chemical additives. The presence of chlorine and fluoride in municipal drinking water is becoming a source of concern to certain consumer groups. Regional sourcing of food is a movement that is sweeping the nation. The bottling plant is only twelve miles from the source and twenty-five miles from the port.

“Does it make sense to import water from thousands of miles across the ocean?” he asks, referring to competing product Fiji Water. “We couldn’t be more local.” To put the frosting on the cake, Alaska water is shipped out in containers that would otherwise leave the state empty. “The carbon cost is already there. Ships and trucks are bringing goods to Alaska all the time and taking nothing back. We’re not adding much, if anything, to the waste stream.”

According to Galik, there’s a growing market for portable, potable water. Alaska Glacier Products is selling in California; to China, Japan, and Korea; and is nudging into India. “Developing countries have contaminated their drinking water,” Galik says. “They need another source, and we’re in the perfect location to give it to them. We’re providing a necessary product.” It’s obviously something he feels passionately about. And in Alaska, he feels that a local source of bottled water contributes immeasurably to food security, which is an issue of concern for this state.

And the water isn’t going to run out any time soon. Coming as it does from a glacier, the product isn’t part of the seven-year cycle of evaporation and precipitation. The source is drought resistant and not dependent on rainfall. The amount pulled out of the lake for drinking purposes doesn’t even come close to the amount of melt generated by the glacier every year.

Galik would like to see more Alaskans become entrepreneurs, rather than expect to get jobs from Outside companies. He says it’s time to diversify the Alaska economy away from an over-reliance on raw material extraction, and companies like this are leading the way.

Anchorage-based Architect Nichelle Seely writes from across Alaska.

This first appeared in the November 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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