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.
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.
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.
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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