LifeStraw - Water for Africa

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Elizabeth Steel
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LifeStraws are a type of water filter sold by Water for Africa and manufactured by Vestergaard Frandsen. The water filter is able to remove up to 99.999% of all waterborne bacteria, as well as removing dirt, making it is safe to drink. Thanks to LifeStraws, 55 million people have received safe water, moving us closer towards achieving SDG 6 of achieving water and sanitation for all.
LifeStraws are particularly useful for emergency situations and can easily be distributed quickly, in contrast to long-term solutions such as wells. It lasts for one person for a year, but unfortunately cannot be recycled. This product seems to me to be an innovative and practical solution to the huge humanitarian crisis of water shortages. Whilst it is not a long-term solution to achieving SDG 6, it is so useful as a way of preventing deaths from water-borne diseases in the short-term, and as such disposable products go, it seems to be a relatively sustainable one. I’d really recommend supporting/donating to Water for Africa to fund LifeStraws, as it seems a reasonably sustainable way to improve water hygiene and quality of life, with a reasonably small environmental impact. 

What it's made of:


The LifeStraw is made up of several different materials, all of which provide a method of filtering different substances in the water that render it unsafe to drink. The first material that the water in the straw travels through is a textile “pre-filter.” Though the material for this is unfortunately not specified on Water for Africa’s website, textile production is famously energy-intensive. Next, the water travels through a polyester filter, intended to filter out large clusters of bacteria. Polyester is a cheap form of plastic to produce, meaning it can be affordably rolled out to those who need it the most, but unfortunately it is not a biodegradable material. Additionally, polyester is derived from petroleum, meaning it requires the extraction of fossil fuels. It is also incredibly water-intensive to produce, as it requires rapid heating and cooling. The next stage of the filtration requires beads saturated with iodine and then filtration through granulated active carbon. Whilst there is little information on the sustainability of these resources per se, iodine is derived from activated carbon, which suggests to me that there are fewer waste products in the production process. Although none of these materials are hugely or abnormally problematic for the environment, the limited shelf-life of only around one year and the lack of capacity/facilities for recycling mean that the repeated production of LifeStraws is somewhat problematic for the environment. However, Vestergaard appears to me to recognise the adverse impacts of disposable short-life products; whilst they remain in favour of the benefits of such products in situations that require rapid aid (eg. the aftermath of a natural disaster), they have conceded that a shift to biodegradable/recyclable material can help to “reduce the environmental impact” and can be “done cost-effectively.” However, although this positive shift appears to be in the pipeline, it has not happened yet. 

How it's made:


There is relatively little information on exactly how the LifeStraws are produced. Neither Vestergaard nor Water for Africa describe the production process – this could be interpreted as a suspicious lack of transparency, but I’m personally inclined to believe that this is more due to the fact that their production process involves more assembly rather than manufacturing. Additionally, whilst not specific to LifeStraws themselves, Vestergaard has committed to substantial efforts for energy reductions in the production process; for instance, in 2020, Vestergaard managed to reduce their electrical consumption by 35% in their southern manufacturing site (they do not specify the exact location of this site/how much of the total energy usage it typically represents, so the value of this statistic should not be overstated). Vestergaard has also committed to “better recycling” in their production processes, however, they have not specified what this would entail, and there is a lack of evidence as to how or if they have carried this out successfully. Whilst they seem to be trying hard to improve their environmental impact in terms of how they produce the LifeStraws and other products, there is a lack of transparency over how this is carried out and how successful it's been, which limits how high they can be scored for their efforts. 

Who makes it:


Vestergaard appears to be committed to improving their workers’ conditions. They are keen to ensure that their worker/manufacturing employees represent a diverse variety of people, with employees from over 14 nationalities. However, large amounts of production are actually concentrated in Vietnam, suggesting that this diversity may not be reflective of who is actually producing the LifeStraws (as opposed to say working in the business/marketing sides of the company). Whilst production being centred in Vietnam initially raised concerns for me (on account of the frequently poor conditions and the use of child labour in some Vietnamese factories), LifeStraws have shown that they are committed to achieving high standard conditions for workers. For instance, in 2019 they established many worker safety improvements such as automating many chemical mixing processes to reduce contamination/exposure risks as well as installing air conditioning in all working environments. Therefore, in many ways, in terms of who produces the LifeStraws, Vestergaard scores very highly. If they had slightly more detail on some of their policies (for instance regarding child labour), then I may have awarded them 3 planets.