Today I’d like to introduce you to a woman who not only dreams of making big changes in the world of water but is actually doing something about it. And it all started with a shower timer.
After arriving in Australia during the drought from the Netherlands, via a nine-month cycling holiday in South America, Gretha Oost wondered how she could help herself and others conserve water. Cue: shorter showers and a shower timer. With this product, she founded her company Half a Teaspoon in 2004.
Then came the 321 Water Bottle in 2010. 321 is a reusable bottle featuring an innovative French press filter mechanism designed to promote the use of tap water and offer an alternative to bottled water. It has won numerous awards such as the 2009 People’s Choice Awards on ABC’s The New Inventors and a Good Design Award in the 2011 Australian International Design Awards.
Now, in her grand plan to encourage conscious use of water around the world, she is taking the concept one step further. Her latest idea ‘Project O’ is designed to make ‘drinking fountains exciting’ and ‘transform our water drinking habits’ so that we ditch bottled water altogether and are happy to drink from, and fill up our environmentally friendly water bottles, such as 321 Water, from public drinking fountains. The concept involves bringing together local councils, corporates, and the community to help jointly crowd-fund the project, plus aligning with artists to turn drinking fountains into works of art – public sculptures for all to appreciate and use.
In conjunction with this and to help get Project O off the ground, Gretha has designed a new, limited release, water bottle called O Eau, made from a new material called RPET, which is 100 per cent food grade recycled PET. O gives the term ‘BYO’ a whole new meaning.
While she is looking to Australian cities, and her home town of Melbourne, to get Project O off the ground, her sights are set on the world and making this concept accessible to everyone. It sounds such an ambitious project and when Gretha first approached me I had so many questions. But as always it’s best to start at the beginning …
Give us a rundown of your background and how you ended up in Australia.
I came here [from the Netherlands] with Willem [her husband] initially in 1996/97 on a working holiday visa and we always said we’d come back and live. I studied communication management and the idea was to get good work experience in Holland and then come back to Australia. We did the visa application and instead of waiting at home for it to be processed we decided to do a nine-month, 11,000 km cycling holiday in South America. This had a huge impact on how we saw the world – in a remote area, just the two of us on a pushbike being reliant on the hospitality of people who have nothing and yet are so generous. It was a beautiful life-changing trip.
We got our visa while travelling and then came to Australia. At the time there was a drought and there was a lot of talk about taking short showers. We were only here a couple of weeks when I started developing a shower timer. That was how my company, Half a Teaspoon came about, and also why I started reading the Anita Roddick book, Troubled Water, about the global water crisis.
When did you get the 321 Water bottle to market?
From idea to market, was a period of four and a half years, beginning in 1996 and launching in December 2010. We received funding from the state government to get to the prototype stage through a programme called Design Victoria. That was amazing because the funding gave me the opportunity to take the idea to an actual prototype. Then I had the opportunity to go on The New Inventors [television programme] in 2009 and after that I received 75 emails and phone calls from people wanting to know where they could buy the product.
You realised you were onto something then?
Yes! That gave me the push to start crowd-funding. But at that time there was only Kickstarter which had just launched in the US but wasn’t available to Australians. So I started crowd-funding but on the basis that if I didn’t get the funding, you would lose your money. It was an amazing time but very stressful. Eventually we got it going and I sold 2500 units before the product was available. Then I got investors on board and the product to market.
“Bottling your own water = less waste, less cost and more convenience”
What challenges did you face?
Driving change is so hard and even harder if you have to educate about the need for change. Drinking bottled water has become second nature. It is a beverage now and we don’t even think about it anymore as something that comes out of a tap as well. It’s about working out what motivates us to buy bottled water and what it is that can be done to reverse it. That is just one challenge.
So you have the 321 Water Bottle and you’re onto another project. How did the idea for the water fountains come about?
Project O is about joining the dots. It’s great to offer a gorgeous water bottle but if you can’t refill it when you’re out then what’s the point? The other thing is that the majority of Australians are uncomfortable about using public drinking fountains. We have water fountains that are cold, stainless steel, urinal-resembling ..! I thought we need to change our relationship with water fountains and that is how the design of Project O came into place. And I then thought, if I want to have fountains everywhere in the world I need to come up with a model to help people run their own campaign.
With the O water bottle, I wanted to simplify the 321 water bottle, which is pure by design and that is how it is intended. O is different. It is black and bold and more outspoken. [Unlike 321] it comes with an optional filter system.
“Each fountain will be a canvas for a local artist. It’s like the Cow Parade of drinking fountains.”
How does Project O work and how will you take the idea around Australia plus to other cities like New York and Tokyo?
The big idea behind Project O is that no matter where you are in the world, if you believe in drinking tap water, you can build your own (BYO) Project O Fountain. I am building a platform that will give you all the tools, templates, etc to engage your community, council and local business to crowd-fund a fountain.
The whole idea is to make drinking fountains more attractive through collectively funding them and through art so that we have a better connection with them and are willing to use them.
I’m trying to get a few up and running now – by getting the support of business, the community and the local government so that we have better connectivity, shared ownership, a collectively funded object that we feel positive about and that we will use. So when I do a few of these pilots, the website will become a platform for others to run their own campaign no matter where they are.
What dreams do you have for the future?
That everybody drinks tap water!
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
Many: who would have thought I’d ride 11,000 km in South America, move to Australia, design water bottles and drinking fountains while having the ‘bestest’ family in the world!
If you’d like to help get Project O from concept to reality, you can purchase a limited release O Eau water bottle from Project0 and tell your friends about it! Plus you can follow its progress on Facebook and Twitter.
Thanks so much for your time, Gretha and best of luck for the future of Project O! I can’t wait to see the first fountain up and running.