What Makes a Water Bottle?

30 Oct

One of the goals of this site is to convey that there is a lot more to being “American-made” than just manufacturing in America. Questions like, “Where is this company headquartered?” and, “What materials make up this product?” carry a lot of significance. Let’s dive a little deeper into that second question as it relates to water bottles. What are water bottles made of, and where does this material come from?

A Brief History

It is impossible to talk about water bottle materials without mentioning Bisphenol A, or BPA. Through the 1990’s and early 2000’s, many reusable water bottles were made from polycarbonate (also known by the trademark name Lexan) – an iconic example is the original Nalgene Bottle. Polycarbonate is a common engineering plastic still used in many everyday products because of its strength, durability, and optical clarity. Discovered in 1953 by an American and German scientist within one week of each other, polycarbonate is now manufactured worldwide, including in US cities like Mt. Vernon, Indiana and Burkville, Alabama. However, polycarbonate has not been used in water bottles since the 2008 discovery that it leeches BPA into water.

BPA is classified as an endocrine disruptor, and while different studies have come to varying conclusions about the human toxicity of BPA, regulatory agencies around the world have moved to ban polycarbonate from baby bottles and other baby products. There is no such ban on polycarbonate in regular water bottles in the United States, though. The current dearth of polycarbonate bottles in the US marketplace is purely a result of retailers and consumers voicing their concerns and prompting the water bottle industry to provide alternatives.

The Replacement

April 18, 2008 was the day that Health Canada announced it would classify BPA as ‘toxic’ to human health. It was also the very day Nalgene announced it was phasing out polycarbonate containers from its Outdoor line. To replace polycarbonate, Nalgene turned to the Eastman Chemical Company’s Tritan co-polyester material. With the fortuitous timing of being introduced in 2007, just as the health concerns about BPA gained traction in the media, Tritan is a dishwasher-safe and BPA-free alternative to polycarbonate that has structural properties similar to that of polycarbonate.

Currently, Tritan is only made in one plant at Eastman’s Kingsport, TN headquarters. About half the 30,000 tons/year of Tritan output by this plant is sent to China for processing, with many of the resultant products being shipped back to the US as bottles, baby products, etc. Tritan has seen tremendous growth since its introduction, and Eastman is expected to bring up another Tritan processing line at its Kingsport facility in 2012, but demand is so high that the combined 60,000 ton/year capacity is expected to sell out immediately.

Since common engineering plastics like polycarbonate and polyethylene are made in factories worldwide, companies tend to purchase these raw materials from the cheapest reliable source. That source can often be an off-shore supplier. Tritan is only made in Tennessee by an American-based chemical company. Any business using Tritan in their products, even if that product is manufactured overseas, is supporting the US manufacturing base. Just something to think about next time you see a water bottle.

To experience Tritan firsthand, we encourage you to check out our reviews of these Tritan water bottles: Contigo Madison, Camelbak Better Bottle, Nalgene OTF, and Nalgene Everyday Tritan Widemouth (an American Alternative approved product).

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