‘Aulani Wilhelm, MS ’14: Raising a Glass to More Clean Water, Less Plastic Waste

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‘Aulani Wilhelm, MS ’14: Raising a Glass to More Clean Water, Less Plastic Waste

Born in Hawai‘i, with strong ties to the ocean, the 2014 Social Innovation Fellow sees a host of advantages to Island Water’s local processing plans.
August 25, 2015
‘Aulani Wilhelm, MS ’14, founder of Island Water

Although some 1 in 10 people on Earth live on islands, investment in island economies, infrastructure, and environmental and social needs is notoriously substandard. In the Pacific Islands region alone, roughly three million people have no access to clean water.

The current solution to the problem of water scarcity is to import water in disposable plastic bottles. With no infrastructure in place to deal with the waste, plastic piles up in open landfills and washes into the ocean, or it’s tossed into burn piles, creating pollution and secondary health issues.

‘Aulani Wilhelm’s nonprofit organization, Island Water, will provide locally produced clean water to island communities and help solve the global plastic-pollution problem through new technology and microenterprise.

“It’s important to reduce island dependence on water consumed in single-use plastic bottles,” Wilhelm says, and her organization’s zero-waste approach is intended to accomplish that. Focused on bringing market solutions to achieve both social and environmental missions, Island Water will enable island entrepreneurs to safely purify and bottle water, using island-scaled technologies and reusable, plastic-free bottles. The organization also aims to provide low-cost financing to help entrepreneurs establish bottling systems and set up their businesses, enabling revenue and profits to stay on-island.

The Problem

Nearly one-tenth of the world’s population lives on islands, but islanders receive disproportionately little attention and investment to address their problems. In the Pacific islands alone, at least 3 million people lack access to clean water. Since being colonized, many once self-sustaining island communities have lost their fresh water sources due to deforestation, overpopulation, the presence of animal waste due to agriculture and introduced species like rats, and changes in rain patterns caused by climate change. Furthermore, technology has enabled people to live on formerly uninhabitable islands, creating a need for water in places where nature does not consistently provide it.

Over the past two decades, the trend of importing water in single-use plastic bottles has set off a cascade of health and environmental problems. The chemicals that leach into bottled water are known to cause a variety of serious health issues. Meanwhile, bottles accumulate in open landfills, wash into the ocean, and contribute to the growing number of floating “garbage patches” increasingly being reported in the news. As a result, more than 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million seabirds die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic. Plastics are not biodegradable, but they are photodegradable –– dissolving into smaller and smaller particles that further invade the waters and enter the digestive systems of wildlife. Humans, given our position in the food chain, face an endless stretch of long-term health problems as a result.

On the economic side of the issue, while islanders are dependent on imports, water vendors are currently absorbing the costs of shipping and sharing their earnings with bottlers and distributors.

The Novel Idea

In some places, concern over where we would find clean water would consume us. Even if water was available, we worried about whether or not it would make us sick.
‘Aulani Wilhelm

Island Water aims to alleviate the problems caused by water scarcity by introducing new water-capture and bottling technology. The company is partnering with manufacturers and others to adapt existing technologies so that island entrepreneurs can source, sanitize, and bottle water on-island, using a bottle return and reuse system. Wilhelm is consulting with island leaders and plans to work closely with communities to assess and address their needs. She aims to help local entrepreneurs finance, design, and set up on-site purification and bottling systems that capitalize on the supply chain already established on many islands for glass-bottled products such as beer, soda, and juice.

By producing and distributing water on-island, vendors will reduce waste, whittle islanders’ reliance on imports, and capture more revenue.

“It’s a quadruple-bottom-line solution, simultaneously addressing the health, environmental, economic, and cultural needs of islanders,” says Wilhelm.

Island Water is currently raising support to adapt existing technology for small, developing island communities where the trend toward single-use plastic can be slowed or reversed, and to launch a pilot to test and refine the water-bottling process and distribution model. In the long term, Wilhelm sees the potential to adapt the model for developed islands and beyond as demand for an alternative to single-use plastic water bottles grows.

“We’re committed to co-designing and implementing solutions with island partners to build capacity and ensure long-term sustainability of the enterprise ventures,” says Wilhelm. “Being an islander myself, I know that unless you understand and work with the communities and their real needs, your efforts on their behalf won’t be successful.”

The Innovator

Born and raised in Hawai‘i, counting fishermen among her relatives and with water sports a regular part of her life, Wilhelm has “always held a deep love for the ocean.” For the past 15 years, she has worked in the Pacific on marine conservation efforts to protect remote islands and atolls and draw global attention to the importance of oceans. That work has brought home to her the dual problems of water scarcity and the pollution caused by single-use plastic bottles.

“As manager of Papahānaumokuākea — one of the world’s largest conservation areas, which suffers from the continuous onslaught of ocean debris — I have witnessed firsthand the horrific impact of plastic pollution on wildlife and human health,” she says.

Both in setting up field camps in remote island environments and working with small island communities, Wilhelm had to face the challenges of energy generation, water purification, and sanitation. She learned through experience just how profound the water scarcity problem is.

“In some places, concern over where we would find clean water would consume us. Even if water was available, we worried about whether or not it would make us sick,” she says.

Wilhelm, who has a native Hawaiian mother and a European father, sees herself as a natural “bridge person” across cultures, institutions, and sectors. Her work has led her to bring together governments, nonprofits, scientists, and community leaders in creating integrated solutions to care for the land, sea, and people.

“I came to Stanford to learn the language of business so that I can be even more effective in this work,” she says. “It’s my hope that Island Water will be able to draw from business and lean-startup models to both bring about social good and generate revenue, while also creating microenterprise opportunities for island communities.”

The idea for developing an alternative to single-use plastic water bottles was nurtured in two courses at Stanford GSB: Startup Garage and a Formation of New Ventures class focused on social enterprise.

The origin of what Wilhelm refers to as her “calling” to be a voice for islands and culture runs deep. She is inspired by ancestral Hawaiian beliefs about the interconnectedness of people and the natural world.

“Our origin story tells us that life evolved from the ocean and we descend from the living creatures that emerged out of darkness before we did. As such, they are our ancestors, and we have a lineal obligation to care for them,” she says.

The Hawaiian creation story in fact remarkably parallels the phylogenetic order proposed much later by Western scientists, she explains.

“I feel an ancestral obligation to those who come after me to preserve our islands and way of life. I’m the mother of three amazing boys, and they inspire me every day to contribute and leave the world a better place for them.”

‘Aulani Wilhelm received an MS in the Stanford MSx Program at Stanford GSB in 2014. She was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.

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