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'Solar Panels Are Life': A Day at a Paper Bottle Plant with Jaden and Will Smith

He's only 18, but Jaden Smith has been working on making paper water bottles the new norm for the past seven years. I toured the factory of his brand JUST Water and the woods with Jaden and his father, Will Smith.
September 23, 2016, 7:30pm
jaden smith holding his water
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

For years, Jaden Smith has been known for his avant-garde antics. In a 2014 interview with T Magazine, he said that he wants to be the "craziest person of all time," his signature Twitter philosophizing—such as, "How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren't Real"—is widely known and beloved, and he famously wore a Batman costume to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's wedding. Until recently, I thought that Jaden Smith could do nothing to surprise me. Then I was asked to tour a water-boxing factory with him in upstate New York.

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To someone unfamiliar with Jaden's environmental activism, his interest in boxed water may seem to have arisen from nowhere. However, it's a cause he's been interested in for years: At the ripe age of 11, after getting into surfing, he noticed the abundance of plastic water bottles in the ocean. Angered and inspired, he took it upon himself to learn about the environment, eventually deciding to take action. "I felt guilty for drinking bottles of water. That's what it really came down to," he says.

I felt guilty for drinking bottles of water. That's what it really came down to.

With the help of his family—including father Will Smith, former Fresh Prince and current extremely famous actor—Smith partnered with businessman Drew Fitzgerald to create a water receptacle that wouldn't wash up on the beaches of Malibu for eternity: a paper container. They dubbed the product JUST Water, and seven years later Jaden would pretend it was a phone.

The JUST Water facilities are located in Glens Falls, New York, about four hours upstate from Manhattan. I, along with a few other journalists, had been bussed here from Manhattan as part of a public relations effort to tell the world about the JUST Water brand.

The JUST factory is inside what used to be a church, and the spiritual-environmentalism vibes are strong as I step out of the bus. Upon entry, I look up and my eyes meet a certain elder Smith's gaze; he tells me he goes by "Will" with a strong handshake and unwavering eye contact. He is wearing dazzlingly clean Air Force Ones. The younger Smith is there too, repping a bleach washed jean jacket of his own brand, MSFTSrep. The jacket says, "It's lit," right above his heart.

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Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Soon, Jaden is struggling to fit a hairnet over his hair, which he has fashioned in a high ponytail, with sections of his dreads grouped together with Cartier rings. Eventually he is successful and turns to his father. "Dad, are you gonna put one on?" he demands. "I wanna see you."

Will Smith, Jaden Smith, JUST CEO Grace Jeon, a handful of press people, and I walk around the facility as we are told about the company's philanthropic efforts, which go beyond paper water bottles: Not only does each bottle have a carbon footprint that's just 20 percent of that of a typical plastic bottle, the JUST Water plant has also brought jobs and industry to a town that had been losing both for decades.

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We are supposed to be watching the machines responsible for the paper bottles, but really we are watching the Smiths watch the machines. "That's so dope," remarks Jaden as he takes a video of the contraption that fills JUST's almost completely renewable bottle. After the 30-minute tour, Will Smith poses for a photo, holding a bottle of JUST Water to his ear.

Read more: An Incomplete but Important List of Celebrities Who Believe in Alien

Next, we head to the Adirondacks to observe the origins of the water: a spring in the Adirondack mountains located a few miles from the quaint town center. En route, Jaden decides to ride with us in our van, despite there being no extra seats. He stands for the entirety of the ride and tells us more about water and his desire to change the world. He recalls asking himself, "How can I hate what's happening in the ocean so bad, and yet I'm still thirsty, and the only way that I can drink this water is out of plastic?"

The bus stops, and we exit. We are in the middle of the woods with the Smiths; we must hike to the spring. JUST's COO, Jim Siplon, tells us about the town's initial hesitance in welcoming the company, but how, after lots of community outreach and compromise—including holding multiple meetings with little old ladies—the town has come to advocate for JUST. As we walk down the mountain towards the well, Will Smith warns, "There's a bigfoot in these woods!" then laughs loudly. Both Smiths converse and joke with nearly everyone. Jaden is playing soft music out of his phone, which he keeps in his back pocket. It sounds like The Weeknd, but I can't hear it well enough to know for sure because Will Smith is cracking jokes and laughing uproariously.

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We arrive at the lake. Jaden takes a moment to peer into the distance. After walking through the dirt, Will Smith's AF1s are less brilliantly white; he regrets the decision to break them out today. Growing up in Philadelphia, he says, "everything was over if you scuffed up your sneakers." Here, Siplon and the Smiths talk about how they are preserving this area of the mountain by adding minimal, non-invasive water-pulling structures. They've got a contract with the city to keep the area undeveloped for at least another hundred years. After they show us the small additions they've put in the area, we head back to the bus.

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On the way, Siplon points to a break in the trees. "J, the first panels are going right here two weeks from now," he says, referring to a plan to construct solar panels to power their water-pulling machines and charge the electric trucks they hope to use in the future.

"That's my man," replies Jaden. "Solar panels are life."

Later, over lunch, Will Smith tells us that his children have his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, to thank for their creativity. While attending performing art school in Baltimore with Tupac "she learned artistic freedom as a way of life," he says. When Jaden and his sister, Willow, were children, Jada encouraged them to draw on the walls in their rooms. "That was hard for me," says Will. "Kids need to do what they're told." Still, he credits Jada's openness for his children's passion and drive. "You can't rebel when you have nothing to rebel against," he says of his kids' teenage behavior.

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"When I get educated about something, I get passionate—like, fire burns in me immediately," Jaden explains. This was true for him even at age 11 when he started JUST. Up until now, he has largely kept his involvement with the company under wraps. Earlier, his father had told me that they didn't want JUST to be a "celebrity company," but rather an honest and productive effort to do good.

"I'm not trying to convince every person to drink JUST water," says Jaden. "I just want to make the people that follow me and care about what I say aware of what's happening in the environment."

I love creating things and molding my surroundings to be totally in line with my creative vision.

Environmentalism isn't the only issue Jaden uses his platform to raise awareness for; earlier this year, he told Nylon that he hopes that his public interrogation of gender norms will make things easier for gender-nonconforming children in the future. Today, he wears a cap from his clothing line that reads, "Non-Violent, Direct Action Programs," a phrase he took from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from Birmingham Jail. "I think by being African-American I am involved in that movement by default, 100 percent," he says, when I ask if it reflects his support of Black Lives Matter. "I might not be out in the streets because I think things would get crazy, and I don't want to get anybody in danger or rile people up because that's just the type of personality I am."

Beyond his paper water bottle brand, Jaden hopes to advocate for the environment while fulfilling his creative interests in other fields. "I love creating things and molding my surroundings to be totally in line with my creative vision," he says. In the future, he'll continue to design clothes for his brand MSFTSrep. He'll also continue starting new businesses, something he tells me he loves to do.

At the end of our journey, he and his father graciously say their goodbyes to everyone, leaving nobody without a hug and posing in photos for all who ask. As Will Smith steps out of the cafe he leans his head back in and yells, "Go where the day takes you!"

We load back into our bus, sadly sans Jaden this time. Within 40 minutes, we get a flat tire. With our bags full of JUST water, on the side of the highway, we are stranded but we are hydrated. I find an empty field to squat behind a bush and ponder the environmentalist possibilities that this field holds. I hear a whisper in the back of my head: "Solar panels are life."