Digging to China and Back: The Search for a Good Water Bottle
There’s a sea of water bottles to choose from out there, but the list grows really short, once you cast out all the bottles made in China. While the ideal portable water bottle may be stainless steel, you’ll not find one on my list (below) of recommended bottles. This is because, without exception, all stainless steel water bottles are made in China. According to one manufacturer I contacted, who’d recently added a line of stainless steel bottles to their line:
Stainless is literally impossible to manufacture in the US unless you can charge $100 per bottle. There were only 2 factories in the entire US that entertained the idea. One eventually said they couldn’t do it, and the other could do it but for a price nobody would pay.
They’re right, of course. While there are apparently many consumers who’d think nothing of shelling out $100 or $200 for a $2 canvas or nylon Juicy Couture or a Burberry bag made in China, (or, say, $300 for a purple nylon Prada cosmetics bag no bigger than an index card, and which was, in all likelihood, secretly made in China for less than a penny on the dollar) – these same people would rail at the idea of paying $100 for a stainless steel water bottle. Particularly for a water bottle that — come next year — might be just as un-trendy as last year’s $200 handbag. This arrangement works out just fine for trend-savvy consumers, who demand their water bottles not only hydrate them, but make a fashion statement as well. Fact is, most reusable water bottles are really only so for a short time before they fall apart, spring a leak, develop a yucky taste or are found to be toxic.
Those manufacturers were also right about the cost to manufacture that $100 stainless steel water bottle. This isn’t due, as we’ve been told, to the evils of unions and industry regulations & standards in the USA. It’s because, in the real world, that’s how much it costs to manufacture a stainless steel water bottle. Germany knows this. Japan knows it. Canada knows it. Switzerland knows it. France knows it. Otherwise, they’d all be making their own stainless steel bottles, instead of setting up shop in China. And why shouldn’t they? After all, China is cranking them out by the millions for a fraction of the real world cost.
Case in point: Until Thermos shipped their operations over to China, the price for a 32 oz. stainless steel Thermos bottle was keeping pace (just like the cost of sugar, cotton, iron, steel and labor) with the Consumer Price Index of the BLS. So, yes, according to the BLS calculator, the $15 price tag on that 1960 stainless Thermos bottle would now be just over $100. That is, were the bottle still being made in the USA — or for that matter in any developed country where workers are paid fair wages, and where a modicum of industrial, environmental, worker and product safety standards are observed.
Yet, a stainless steel water bottle can easily be bought today for a mere $5 – a third of what they cost 50 years ago! The lack of a lifetime guarantee — or even a guarantee that, a year down the road, this same bottle won’t be found to contain toxic materials — seems to be no impediment to the lure of goods made in China.
All of which goes to explain the absence of stainless steel water bottles on my list. That leaves just glass and plastic, neither of which I’d recommend buying from China. The glass bottles I recommend are made in either the USA or Italy (with the latter made by Bormioli Rocco, the renowned maker of pharmaceutical, food-grade and fine glassware vessels). The plastic bottles are all made in the USA, with two partial exceptions to the rule, which are boldly noted in my descriptions, below.
But first, an update on BPA and phthalates….
All of the plastic bottles below are advertised as being free of the more famous endocrine disruptors — BPA and phthalates – with which most consumers are now familiar. However, the emerging science, which we’ll be hearing about soon enough, indicates that BPA and phthalates (such as DEHA and DEHP), are only a few of the hundreds of endocrine disrupting, estrogenic-active (EA) chemicals used in plastic manufacturing. And because EA chemicals tend to accumulate in the body with repeated exposures, and because they may also be associated with health issues ranging from from birth defects, low birth weight, diabetes, obesity, genetic damage and learning disorders, to male sterility and reproductive cancers, this seems an important factor for anyone — but particularly those with health problems or a compromised immune system – to consider when purchasing plastic products for personal use. To date, only one company, Hydrapak, has taken a pioneering role in addressing this concern and made a plastic water bottle certified to be EA-free. For this reason, Hydrapak’s PureBot water bottle tentatively (until the science tells us otherwise) earns the number one slot among plastic water bottles. But the number one choice for water bottles is glass which, after 3,000 years, is still the cat’s pajamas.
- HercuGlass Water Bottles (the almost unbreakable water bottle)– Face it, cold water just tastes better out of a glass bottle. If you grew up in the 1950s-60s, like me, and your mom kept one of those classic green glass bottles in the fridge, you know what I’m talking about. While there’s no such thing as break-proof glass, HercuGlass is designed to withstand drops that would shatter most glass. (Watch some trial drops in this YouTube video). These water bottles are available in 3 basic styles — flasks, sports bottles and the classic European mineral water bottle shape. The capacities range from 8 ounces to 34 ounces. Because they’re glass, all you taste is pure water. Plus, you can also drink fruit juices or add a lemon slice without fear of it interacting with the plastic. The manufacturing process on HercuGlass is a little different than most glassware, as the bottles undergo an additional ion-strengthening process, developed at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. The end result is a line of high-strength glassware — from beer steins to canning jars to water bottles — tested to withstand up to 7-foot drops without breaking. (But just to be safe, the company also sells $6 zip-up Koozies with their water bottles for insulation and as added protection against breakage.) While hikers, cyclists, campers and college students reportedly use HercuGlass water bottles without incident, there’s no getting around the fact that glass does require extra precaution to carry, which may be too impractical for some people and some situations. For those people, this bottle would still make a fine water bottle for home use, bed-side hydration and lighter-duty travels — perfect occasions for setting aside the plastic bottle which, no matter how you spin it, is inferior to glass in every way, except portability. Average price $8.45 to $14.95, depending on size/style. Made in either the USA or Italy, depending upon which bottle style you choose.
- PureBot Aside from being certified EA-free, the PureBot is durable, dishwasher safe, and reasonably priced. I’ve tried this bottle myself and found it to be leak-proof, lightweight, with no off-taste from the plastic. I like the pull-up sports top, which means it’s simple to get a drink of water — no unscrewing of lids, no sucking like a hamster, no ingenious contraptions to fall apart. (I could wish for an attached dirt/germ cover of some sort, but I’m not complaining). I also like the wide-mouth lid, which makes it easy to fill with ice cubes. It’s made of recyclable #4 plastic and comes in only two color-design choices (a grassy scene and a blue squiggly design), which may be a bummer if you’re the sort who also demands a fashion statement from your water bottle. This bottle is available in only a few select fitness/athletic stores, which means that most of us will have to buy it online, via Hydrapak. At this reasonable price, it may be worth taking up a pool and buying several to save on shipping costs. Average cost $9.99 for a 24 oz. bottle. Made in Texas, USA.
- Platypus Soft Bottle The first thing you need to know about the Platy, as it’s users affectionately call this water bottle, is that this is not really a bottle at all, but a bag that looks remarkably similar to an IV bag. As such, it is almost guaranteed to draw questions and comments from curious onlookers. The reviews of seasoned Platypus users are nearly always glowing. For starters, the Platy is astoundingly durable and featherlight — a huge plus for campers and hikers. While I don’t personally recommend heating plastic — ever — Platy users routinely freeze or boil the bag, using it for anything from from ice water to hot coffee (hence its double-duty as an ice pack or a hot water bottle). Most users report that it leaves no off-taste and rarely springs a leak — even after up to 10 years of heavy-duty use. And because it’s a bag, its shape conforms, unlike hard bottles, to fit inside purses, totes, luggage and backpacks when full. And when empty, you hardly know it’s there. Simply fold it and slip into your pocket or bag. The drawbacks? Some bag designs require a longer attention span to fill with water, and — although you can put it into the dishwasher — the only way to really cleaning the bag is to swish soapy water around the inside, then rinse. The larger bags require two hands to hold while drinking. Plus, if you’re the sort who likes to make a fashion statement, there’s nothing like sucking on an IV bag to convey the message, “I’m too sexy for my water.” Sizes range from a .5 liter (17 ounce) bag to 1 liter (about a quart) to a whopping 3 liter or even a gallon bag (for campers and such). There are several drinking apparatuses available — the hyper-flow bite valve, the push-pull sports cap, and the closure cap (a generic bottle lid, just like the ones on disposable water bottles). Average price $7.95 and up, depending on size. Made by Cascade Designs in the USA.
OTHER NOTES: I’m not sure what the Platypus is made of, as the company site (Cascade Designs) is down. According to one (likely incorrect) product description, it is made of “welded, triple-layer plastic laminate lined with food-grade polyethylene.” Another description — likely the correct one — reports that the Playpus is made of “#5 polypropylene plastic”. If I remember to, I’ll update this info once the Cascade Design site returns. For now, we at least know that, unlike some of the plastic bottles on this page, the Platypus is genuinely recyclable
- Thermos Tritan Copolyester Intak water bottles (EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: The lid on this bottle was made in China. The bottle itself is made in the USA). The Thermos line of Intak bottles is made from Tritan CoPolyester, which is rigid, clear and claims to be BPA-free. The Intak offers 3 drinking apparatus designs — the screw-off lid, the straw, and the pop-up lid with spout. The first two designs (both 18 oz. bottles) have problems. The screw-off lid is a pain in the neck. The straw design is worse, as the water tends to sneak and wick up the straw between drinks, then dribble out (or, alternately, will create a geyser-effect and spray you when you open the straw). But I can highly recommend the pop-up lid design, which I’ve tried. I like the way it keeps the drinking spout covered between drinks — an important consideration for anyone working or playing in the dirt, or for those who might be using their bottle in germ-ridden places, esp. hospitals and doctor’s offices. There are two caveats. One, this bottle must be carried upright, as it may leak if carried sideways or upside-down. The Thermos company acknowledges this as the trade-off to creating this spiffy, easy-to-use drinking apparatus. The second caveat is about the little plastic seal in the lid of the cap. Don’t lose it. According to some users, this seal falls off, gets lost and renders the bottle terribly leaky. I’ve not had this problem — the seal seems quite secure — but, then, I always hand-wash plastic. I don’t put it into a dishwasher, which I suspect may play a role in making these seals more prone to falling off. Average price $8 to $12, widely available. Bottle made in the USA, lid made in China.
OTHER NOTES: Tritan Copolyester is a #7 plastic, which means that — until further notice — it is not recyclable in most municipalities. Lastly, according to the Thermos representative I contacted, all of their products are made in China, except for their plastic bottles.
- Nalgene water bottles Nalgene offers 3 lines of bottles that claim to be BPA-free: Tritan Copolyester, HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and LDPE (low-density polyethylene). Within these three lines are many sizes/colors/styles/drinking apparatuses from which to choose. I have not tried these bottles but — like the Thermos Intak (above) — people seem to either love or hate them. This is primarily a matter of personal preference for one design/configuration over another. Amazon is a good place to read consumer reviews regarding the pros and cons on any given design/configuration to see what will best suit you. Average price $5 to $12, depending on size/design. According to the person I contacted at Nalgene, the bottle and lids are both made in New York, USA.
OTHER NOTES: Nalgene is phasing out its line of polycarbonate bottles, which do contain BPA. All of their standard water bottles are recyclable except for the Tritan Copolyester — a #7 plastic which is, again, not recyclable in most municipalities. Nalgene also carries a water bottle (bag) similar to the Platypus, however, it is made in China.
- Polar Bottles (EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: The foil liners on these bottles are made in China. The rest of the bottle is made in the USA). Designed for cyclists, these nifty plastic bottles are made of LDPE and have an insulating outer cover, which keeps water cold and also helps prevent sweating. The drinking valve is made of urethane, which may or may not be an issue. I’m no chemist. I’ve not used this bottle, but it generally gets rave reviews from users, although (because this is a squeeze-type bottle) some complain about the amount of pressure necessary to squeezing water out. This may be an important consideration for younger folk (with smaller hands) or for anyone whose hand strength is not up to par. The Polar Bottle is BPA-free, recyclable, and offers a diverse color selection, with prices ranging from $9 to $12. Except for the outer liner, the bottle is made in Colorado, USA.
OTHER NOTES: Why did I made exceptions on the no-China rule with the Polar Bottle and Thermos Tritan components? Mainly to offer more choices, as there are really so few bottles being made in the USA. Here, it’s reasonable to expect that — since the bottles themselves are made in the USA, and because the liner and cap are not in constant contact with the drinking water — there may be less opportunity for leaching.
Bio Plastic Bottles There are several companies in the U.S. making water bottles from so-called “green” or bio plastics, which are variously made of corn and other vegetable matter (some of them GMO) and/or have additives in the plastic to help them biodegrade within just a few months or years, rather than the 1,000 for conventional plastics. Good idea. But the emphasis seems to be on biodegradability, with little attention paid to personal safety, in terms of what these plastics may be leaching into drinking water. This question is particularly pertinent to bio plastics with applied colors and designs – a matter than has yet to be raised in the drinking-water community, but which has been raised in the medical industry, during their trial efforts to use (and apply labeling to) these plastics. Also, while these bottles claim to be sustainably made and recyclable, they’re all #7 plastics, so they’re not really recyclable just yet. Users report off-putting tastes in these bio-plastics just as often as in conventional plastic. Bio plastics may or may not be a step in the right direction, in terms of sustainability, but in terms of their safety as drinking vessels, I’ve not found the research and testing to back this up. So I can’t give a thumbs-up, just yet, to bio plastics.
Aluminum or stainless steel water bottles — The only metal bottle not being made in China is the Siggs aluminum water bottle, made in Switzerland, which continues draw concerns — not only because of the questionable safety of drinking from aluminum, but from the ongoing concerns over the unknown safety of the resin liners in these bottles. Responding to these concerns, Siggs recently introduced their Steelworks line of stainless steel bottles, made in (where else?) China.
And speaking of China…
Because China has a proven track record of manufacturing steel products contaminated with everything from lead to cadmium, asbestos, Cobalt-60 and other radioactive wastes, I wouldn’t recommend any stainless steel water bottle from China, no matter how heroic the safety measures and guarantees, such as this one from a manufacturer of children’s stainless steel water bottles:
“We are an American company however our products are manufactured in China. We have done everything to ensure our factories, worker conditions and products are up to our standards. To do so, we visit our factories frequently. The factories are very clean, orderly and humane. Most importantly, they are ISO (International Standards of Operation) certified which is very difficult to attain and comes from an outside agency that audits for manufacturing processes and standards. Finally, we have the independent testing lab, STR, test all elements of our products from the steel and plastic compounds, to FDA and European child safety standards, to the durability of the stainless steel body – just to make sure.”
Just to make sure, I could ramble off a list of other manufacturers who, just a few years ago, were making similar claims claims about doing “everything to ensure our factories, worker conditions and products are up to our standards,” in the manufacturing of their brands of baby food, baby formula, baby furniture, children’s toys & jewelry, apple juice, cookies, dishes, exploding frying pans, dog food, rice, tea, chocolates, toothpaste, shampoo, clothing and drywall, that were later discovered (doh!) to contain melamine or dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, formaldehyde and/or a host of other contaminants.
Yet, American companies continue to tell us that the costs are too prohibitive to manufacture goods in the U.S.A. It’s somehow cheaper to do it in China — even with all the extra effort and manpower necessary “just to be sure” that their products don’t fall prey to the China-recall syndrome. Perhaps it’s the lack of environmental regulations. Or the lack of worker safety standards. Or the cheap ingredients. Or the shoddy workmanship. Or the slave-wage labor (12-cents an hour will buy you a lot more sweat than the living wages paid in the U.S.). Whatever it is, it must be worth it, because American companies continue to flock like lemmings to China, assuring us as they go that they are doing “everything” to assure the safety of these products.
If these manufacturers were genuinely concerned about the health and safety of their customers (not to mention the health of the American economy), they’d pull up stakes and move shop back to the USA. And not to a private US-prison, with its own built-in slave labor work force, but to a genuine American factory, just like in the old days, when we had a viable economy. And they’d quit bellyaching about complying with environmental, industry, worker safety and product safety regulations and standards. Because, truth is, our hands aren’t so clean, either. The U.S.A. turns out its own share of toxic, shoddily constructed products. We just don’t hear about it.
The bottom line is this: The cost of manufacturing goods in China has long been too prohibitive to the health of the American consumer — not to mention our economy. These so called “American” manufacturers might be surprised to know just how many people would gladly shell out the extra bucks to buy a water bottle (or a yard of fabric, a crib, a toy, a book, a tube of toothpaste, a dress, a purse, a bag of dog food, a bicycle, a candy bar, a cell phone, a smoked salmon, a television, a desk, a bottle of vitamins, and most anything you can name) that was not grown, processed and/or manufactured in China.
If one of these manufacturers would be so bold as to try peddling integrity as well as Juicy Couture and Prada market vanity, they could make a handsome profit. It doesn’t take much googling to see that the world is full of people looking for products not made in China. They’re not looking for another $5 stainless steel bottle made in China. Just a product they can be reasonably certain will not poison them, injure them, or make them sick.
Spin the Bottle
Back when I was a kid, we used to dig really deep holes in the sandbox — going for bedrock because, rumor had it, if we kept digging, we might reach China. So imagine my surprise to find myself today — all grown up, and still digging my way to China. This seems to be the only way anymore to find out where a product was made: start digging and keep digging until you get there.
This has been the case whether researching water bottles, board games, cosmetics & toiletries, fabrics, furniture or toys. It seems that companies are getting more and more clever about dodging the topic or disguising the country-of-origin in their advertising and on their websites. Over time, I’ve learned to spot some of the red flags. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, such as:
- When a company brags about being “headquartered” or “based” in the US, or that its product was “developed in the US,” or “designed in the US,” yet makes no mention of where their product was manufactured….
- Or if a company boasts that they are in “close partnership” with their global team, or that they “adhere to the strictest quality standards in their manufacturing,” yet makes no mention of where their product was made….
- Or if a company proudly tacks the letters “USA” to the end of its name, yet is remiss in mentioning where their products are actually made….
- Or if a company brags overlong about its 100 year history — offering, perhaps, a detailed timeline, beginning with Grandpa’s drug store in Podunk, New York — yet neglects to mention in whose third-world basement this product is now being made….
- Or if a company gushes green over their concern for the health of the planet and its people — and has a artfully laid out website, complete with a with a tasteful, minimalist line of products to back up their claim (and may even be involved in noble, charitable works to bring clean water to impoverished people) — yet makes no mention of where their oh-so sustainable, green, recycled, recyclable, responsibly manufactured products are being manufactured, you can bet the bank that they’re being made in China.
Still, it’s a basic human kindness to give them the benefit of a doubt. When in doubt, ask. Give them a call or write a short, polite email. Most, but not all companies will write you back. The usual explanation goes, “We found it prohibitive to manufacture this product in the USA.” But sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised to hear the voice on the other end of the phone tell you, “Yes, we make all of our products in the USA!”
Still, all this digging makes me a bit tired and soul-weary. I’ve dug my way to China more times than I can count, and I’m here to tell you its not as enchanting as I envisioned back in my sandbox days. But I made it, and I’m back to report that there are a lot of water bottles being made on the other side of the world. Here are a few:
- Bean Canteen
- Charity Bottle
- Contigo (Made by Ignite USA)
- Crocodile Creek
- DAJO Adventure Gear
- Fit & Fresh LivPure
- Good Life Gear
- Great American Products
- Guyot Designs
- Klean Kanteen
- Lifeline (including an extensive line of “Pink Ribbon Breast Cancer Awareness” stainless steel water bottles)
- Liquid Logic
- Lock & Lock
- Nalgene Canteen
- New Wave
- PMCI (Penn Marketing Co, Inc.)
- PMI (Pacific Marketing International)
- Pure Hydration
- Shinzi Katoh
- Siggs (Stainless Steel bottles only)
- Thermos (all lines but the plastic)
- Together Bottles
- US Canteen
So long as we keep buying them, these manufacturers will keep giving us exactly what we demand — millions of cheap, pretty bottles that may or may not be hazardous to our health. Chances are, we’ll never know.
submitted by L. Lance