Liberty Bottleworks Makes Water Bottles The Washington Way

Hiring veterans and using air-to-ground missile technology

This Built America - Making Things the Washington Way

In Union Gap, Washington -- where apple and cherry orchards hug the banks of the Yakima River -- Liberty Bottleworks is making aluminum water bottles in a factory that once produced RVs.

Inside the plant, the company has repurposed a technology on its production line that's normally used to make air-to-ground missiles.

But at Liberty, Frisbee-sized discs of aluminum are turned into bottles instead of weapons of war.

The company's founders, Tim Andis and Ryan Clark, scoured half a dozen states looking for machines they could repurpose to make a water bottle that would slow down the flow of plastic -- and infuse their company with a mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.

"It was a big, complex problem that needed to be solved," Andis says of producing a reusable water bottle that wouldn't end up in landfills and could be made in a small town that needed an economic boost. "It was a giant, national scavenger hunt."

But the hunt has paid off. Clark estimates that Liberty Bottleworks has kept 10 million plastic bottles out of landfills in a two-year period. And more important to Andis, the company has brought 42 jobs to his hometown, including skilled jobs for veterans.

"Water bottles are just a vehicle for our other goals -- creating jobs, conserving resources, protecting the environment and social responsibility. We think we can do well by doing good," Clark says.

Thomas SudburyThis is the coolest water bottle in the world.


Chapter One: One Less Plastic Bottle

On average, every American throws away 252 plastic water bottles a year, according to the National Beverage Coalition. Multiply that number by more than 400 million Americans and it's hard to fathom the billions of bottles that end up in the garbage.

For Andis, the picture that made it real to him was watching millions of plastic bottles shipped to Haiti after the earthquake struck in 2010. He also watched as quake victims used cans that once held diesel fuel to collect water from trucks. It was the same year Liberty Bottleworks sold its first bottles.

"I thought, 'If only we could have been in production a year earlier,'" Andis says, maybe the company would have had enough bottles on hand to send to Haiti to help. "It's a small island. We could have done so much good cutting down on waste and helping people with reusable containers for clean water."

But even if Liberty couldn't help in Haiti, the founders promised themselves they'd be ready to help in the next disaster. Now Liberty sends its blemished bottles -- which can't be sold but are safe and usable -- to countries through charities vetted by Rotary International. "We just shipped 13,000 to India," Clark says, to support aid projects for orphans. Last year the company donated 100,000 bottles worldwide.

Liberty's environmentalism isn't just focused outwardly. At the factory everything from water to aluminum is recycled.

Overflow from water dispensers -- which employees use to fill up their bottles from the municipal water supply -- is used to keep the office plants alive. Water used to wash the bottles before they are packed and shipped is reused several times.

All the aluminum Liberty Bottleworks uses is recycled -- sometimes many times -- including its own bottles that customers can return to Liberty for recycling.

"It takes 80 percent less energy to recycle than to make new aluminum, which requires bauxite," Clark says. The U.S. isn't a major producer of bauxite, the base mineral used to make aluminum. Most comes from strip mining operations in countries such as Australia, China and Brazil. Keeping aluminum moving through a recycling process keeps the resource in the U.S. instead of depending on new aluminum from overseas.

Chapter Two: People Plus Bottles

Andis used to sell products for other people -- namely companies that wanted to get on the shelves at Seattle-based REI, Inc., a national retailer of outdoor apparel and equipment.

A few years ago, REI was looking for a U.S.-based company to make BPA-free reusable bottles. Andis went to his usual suspects, but all he found were variations on the plastic bottle theme or aluminum bottles produced overseas.

So he decided to make his own bottle. And he wanted to make it in his hometown of Union Gap.

Thomas SudburyLiberty Bottleworks co-founder Tim Andis.

Originally called Yakima, the town was passed by the Northern Pacific rail line in 1884. The train ended up running about four miles north of the town. Merchants literally rolled their buildings to the new location to take advantage of the railway. In 1918, even the name Yakima migrated and the original town site was renamed Union Gap.

Yakima grew up while Union Gap stayed small.

The city has been trying to entice business to return ever since. While the town is known for its orchards, fruit picking is seasonal and it doesn't pay well. There's always been a dearth of middle-income jobs, and in recent years the job hunt has been particularly hard for veterans and people who've been unemployed for a long time.

"We think it is important to help get people back to work who have sacrificed for their country," Clark says. "If I know this product is going to employ my neighbor, that's going to make you feel good. We use American machines. We hire U.S. tool and die makers. We call it ethical discrimination."

That commitment to Union Gap has meant the two founders have had to get creative about how to make the bottles here. Despite its simplicity -- it's basically a hollow tube -- making an aluminum bottle isn't easy.

Andis went all the way to Marysville, Ohio, to find the machinery for the bottle's body. Designed and built by Engineered Manufacturing and Equipment Company, the hydraulic machinery is used primarily to make Hellfire missile bodies.

The missiles first launched during the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and now are used in unmanned aircraft in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"They were the top makers of aluminum tubes, the perfect shape for bottles," Clark says.

Mike Eddy, 53, a retired National Guardsman, works with Tony Morales changing out the tooling for the body maker machine.

They work together to remove debris that accumulates on the hardened steel used to form the bottles. That helps ensure a smooth finish for the final product. "It's a long process, but there is no other place like this," Morales says, as the two switched tools for different diameter bottles.

Eddy says the methodical work helps him manage post-traumatic stress. He retired from the military after 21 years as a diesel mechanic for tanks, track vehicles and trucks.

"I was laid off for two years," he says. "None of my military experience really applied in the civilian world. It was hard to find a decent job."

But at Liberty, Eddy not only has found work that helps him, but men and women who share a similar history.

Casey Briggs, 24, works on the "necker" machine, which tapers the bottle's shoulders like a wine bottle shape. That gives the bottles a smoother pour compared to a squared off neck that chugs and splatters when it pours.

While there's almost a 30-year difference between Eddy and Briggs, they find common ground talking about a shared past. Briggs was a gunner on an Abrams tank. Eddy and Briggs talk about seeing Saddam Hussein's palaces and their hard-core military training. Briggs, now National Guard drill instructor, often challenges colleagues to pushups when things go wrong on the assembly line.

As he prepares the line for the next round of tubes to be finished in the necker, Briggs says the job gives him a chance to move from being in war to civilian life

"I can talk about my military experience here," Briggs says, even as it helps him to set aside money to go to college to study business or law or maybe become a paramedic.

Chapter Three: Building A Better Bottle

Andis and Clark know that while hiring veterans and even doing things right environmentally was important to them, those things weren't necessarily going to help them sell $25 bottles.

There's enormous competition not only from other bottle makers -- many of them operating overseas at a lower cost -- but from the inertia of consumers. It's easier to buy a plastic bottle for a couple of bucks than carry a costlier aluminum bottle around with you all the time.

So they worked with an engineer and two dozen local women to figure out what worked and what didn't when it came to the bottles already on the market.

One thing the women hated: lipstick sticking to the threads used to seal a cap to a bottle. While the issue was gender-specific, it makes sense for anyone who has tried to clean a bottle's screw top.

Andis devised a locking top called an "outsert." The patented closure has three micro-studs -- small knobs on a ring that fits around the wide mouth and smooth lip of the bottle. The studs fit into tracks on the lids and close with a single quarter-turn click. And it's easy to clean.

Tim SudburyAll the aluminum Liberty Bottleworks uses is recycled, including its own bottles that customers can return to Liberty for recycling.

Another unique Liberty feature is the powder that coats the inside of its bottles. Besides keeping the water in the bottles clean, the layer also prevents any metal taste from leaching into the water.

But it might be the cylindrical printer that makes a Liberty bottle more than just another vessel.

Most aluminum water bottles are serviceable -- and silver-colored. But with the printer, Liberty can put any artwork on a bottle and even layer on textures -- think topographic lines of a National Park map or the planets, stars, and moons of the Milky Way.

Chris Pursley, the lead print technician who grew up on a farm not far from the factory, has pushed the cylindrical digital printer to its limits to paint the bottles faster and with more innovative designs. A few months ago, it took four minutes to print a bottle, now it takes Pursley less than a minute.

The innovation has made Liberty bottles hot commodities at stores like Whole Foods Market and Nordstrom, with 65 percent of Liberty Bottleworks' business coming from painted bottles. The company's art department is in constant motion rendering workable files from email attachments and even cocktail napkins sent in by customers.

One of Liberty's most popular bottles features art inspired by its mascot, Sasquatch, an elusive creature said to inhabit the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Clark sees that elusive quality in American manufacturing: "I wanted something to represent us, that when people saw it they would be reminded to hope, believe. To think the impossible is possible."

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Pamela Duncan

I will NOT have my water from plastic! YIKES! That water might have been in there for years, throughout extreme temperature changes, and absorbed goddess only knows what kinds of chemicals and bacterium, filth, detritus, and general gunk! NO WAY, my body deserves better, and so does YOURS.

June 24 2014 at 6:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Pamela Duncan

When I was a little girl, many, many years ago and didn't like soft drinks but was fascinated by the machines, I vividly remember asking my Father why there weren't bottles of water in there. Daddy said "Danged if I know, but we ought to patent that notion, honey"! They were glass bottles back then. I have rolled that conversation around in my head for all of these years....

June 24 2014 at 6:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
moon4hym

How long does the inside powder-coating last? Stainless steel is anti-Alzheimer's, best, but this IS recycling, and better than petroleum product plastic.

May 11 2014 at 11:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
LuAnn Baker

I want a couple of these bottles. I think they're cool!

May 11 2014 at 8:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to LuAnn Baker's comment
Sambasivan

Hey you can try out here http://www.aluminumbottlecans.com/products.php

June 05 2014 at 5:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
channabar

I've found the best way to carry water is with the newly released dehydrated H2O water bottles. They are made by EverDry Bottle Company, in Dry Gulch, AZ. They are great for hiking, camping, survival as you don't have all the weight of the conventional water bottles, canteens and such, and they are compactable for carry in your backpack, etc. When you're thirsty, just pop the top, add water and drink. Don't know why no one thought of this before.

May 11 2014 at 8:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gordonrobroy

hey---here is an idea--bottled water in a beer can------ohoh think i have gone to the dark side.....bob

May 10 2014 at 9:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Curtis

I've been carrying SIGG aluminum bottles for my drinking water for years. One, it saves the planet, and two, I'm too cheap to spend 99 cents for water I can get from a drinking fountain free. When I was working I bought a small 12 volt electric cooler to put my water in and keep it cool in the Texas heat. When I ran out of water I'd just go through a Box Store or someplace and refill my water bottle. As a kid in the 50's we carried WWII Canteens on our bicycles for our water. I seldom taste any difference in bottled water over most fountain water other than the price. I like the changes they did to the top. My SIGG cap sticks bad sometimes and it takes a lot of effort to get it off because of the threads.

May 02 2014 at 10:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
teridavisnewman

Bottled water is no different from tap water. People who are paying $5 a gallon for the same thing I get by turning on a faucet show me how stupid they are. If I have a job applicant that is drinking bottled water, I don't hire them because they are not smart enough. I don't need people too stupid to know when they are being conned on my payroll.

May 02 2014 at 8:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to teridavisnewman's comment
Allison

Maybe where you live. But here the water out of the tap smells like a swimming pool, it's very hard, and it tastes bad. No filter we've tried does enough to get rid of the bad taste. So we pay a little more for the recyclable 5-gallon bottles, and we drink water, which is far healthier than other drinks.

May 04 2014 at 2:44 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Allison's comment
dickn2000b

Hey Allison...if the water smells like a swimming pool it's because of the chlorine. And the chlorine is very unstable. It will totally disappear from the water within 24 hours. Just let it sit and the next day it will be gone. If you buy bottled water you're an idiot!

May 10 2014 at 2:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
Rocky

Now all we need (besides the capital) is for our government to butt out of it! Cut the regulations, taxes, etc., and give American business a break so it has insentive to stay here.

May 02 2014 at 7:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
honeychild

I read they will be coated inside but what if the coating cracks ? Isn't aluminum associated with Alzheimers ?

May 02 2014 at 7:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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