Start-up of the week

Remember when water was free? It is again in Tel Aviv. For now

Woosh machines slake your thirst, save water and reduce plastic bottle wastage. Suspicious locals are trying to find the catch, but meanwhile they’re drinking

Itay Tayas-Zamir (L.) demonstrates how to use a Woosh machine (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Itay Tayas-Zamir (L.) demonstrates how to use a Woosh machine (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Start-ups that give us new ways to text for free or beat traffic are great, but what this country really needs is water. Fortunately for Tel Aviv residents and visitors, there’s now a start-up for that too. Despite sharp criticism from some Tel Aviv residents about the company’s motives and tactics, thousands of people have been filling their bottles at watering stations set up by Woosh that dispense free cold water to all.

The idea of Woosh is to slake the thirst of the Tel Aviv populace, while saving water and reducing the number of plastic bottles being used in the city. Pedestrians bring their water bottles to Woosh machines, register with the service, and choose the fill-up size and services they want. (Besides filling the bottle with water, Woosh machines clean and rinse bottles as well.) The water comes from the city’s water system, and is chilled and filtered before being dispensed. The service is free — at least for now, while the project is in test mode.

The trial involves seven Wooshes set up in high-traffic pedestrian areas like Rothschild Boulevard and Gan Meir, but eventually the company hopes to have as many as 200 machines around the city. Tel Aviv itself is a test site; Woosh hopes to eventually expand to other cities in Israel as well as abroad.

Woosh was the brainchild of Itay Tayas-Zamir, a water engineer who five years ago got tired of paying 10 shekels for cold bottles of water from local fast food joints and candy stores. Tayas-Zamir raised money for the project and partnered with the Tel Aviv Municipality to set up the machines. The city is paying for the water while Woosh supplies the machines, at least during the initial phase.

One of Tayas-Zamir’s main concerns, he told The Times of Israel, was to ensure that people did not waste the new free water. “The water is meant for drinking, not washing socks and the like,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we have a sign-up process. We feel that when people put their name to a service they are committed to it, and will be more likely to respect what they are getting.”

Woosh's free water machine (photo credit: Woosh via Facebook)
Woosh’s free water machine (photo credit: Woosh via Facebook)

While the returns are very preliminary, as Woosh machines have been operating for just two weeks, Tayas-Zamir says that so far very little water of the water that has been dispensed has not ended up in bottles.

The water is the same water Tel Avivians can get from their taps or from water fountains, except colder and filtered. The decision on whether to charge money will be made by each of the cities where the system is set up. Tel Aviv has pledged not to charge for the water, Tayas-Zamir said.

It sounds like a real boon for anyone who lives, works, or visits in Tel Aviv. But judging by Woosh’s Facebook page, you would think that the company was an agent of some secret government cabal intent on taking advantage of thirsty people to carry out all sorts of nefarious schemes, like collecting their personal data to sell to marketing companies. In response, Woosh said on its Facebook page that users could feel free to enter phony details if they had privacy concerns. Tayas-Zamir said that the registration was for the social aspect of the project, where users could keep track of how many bottles they and their friends save, how much water they drank, etc.

Other have complained that the system is discriminatory to the poor and/or immigrant community because it requires users to register with a credit card (Tayas-Zamir said that this was not the case), and that it is part of a plot to privatize the public water fountains in Tel Aviv. “What about children who have no credit card,” asked Ariel on Woosh’s Facebook page. “How will they use the machines? What about tourists who have no Israeli credit cards, or foreign workers who have no credit cards at all? It’s shocking how the privatization movement has reached even the public water supply.”

Tayas-Zamir, of course, denied all the charges (he and other Woosh officials have answered all the accusations in depth on the Facebook page), saying that the numbers prove that the complainers are all wet.

“In the two weeks since we have begun operating, we saved the world’s garbage dumps 7,000 bottles that would have been used by thirsty people, but weren’t, because they were able to ‘recycle’ their bottles with new, cold water at Woosh stations. In just the past week we distributed almost 3,000 liters of water to over 1,000 customers. Clearly there is a great deal of discrepancy between Facebook world and the real world.”

Despite that, Tayas-Zamir said that he understands where the negativity comes from.

“Just today I was at the Rothschild water station as an elderly couple filled up and enjoyed several bottles of water. Even after this positive experience, the man told his wife ‘I am sure they will figure out a way to cheat us with these machines.’ Unfortunately we Israelis have come to suspect the worst, even when the intentions are good,” said Tayas-Zamir. “I am hoping that as time goes on, the public will realize that this is for their benefit.”

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