Will consumers pay $20 for a reusable glass drinking bottle?
Walt Himelstein thinks so. The Owings Mills environmental chemist and entrepreneur invented the Pure reusable glass drinking bottle, which features a shock-absorbing plastic sleeve that holds the glass together if it breaks.
Himelstein, 59, hopes to tap a surging interest among environmentally conscious consumers who want their own reusable bottles, rather than buying beverages in single-use glass, metal or plastic containers. Glass, Himelstein said, is "simply better" for drinking beverages, partly because it transfers minimal taste or odor to the drink.
"It's the purest thing you can drink out of," said Himelstein, noting that the entire bottle both the plastic sleeve and the glass — is recyclable.
His entrepreneurial story is rooted in his training as a chemist who once worked with chemicals and glass bottles covered in a shatter-resistant durable coating in the lab. Envisioning wider applications for that approach, he began developing a glass water bottle in 2009 and launched the Pure bottle in late 2010.
He's grown from a product development neophyte to a company owner who has tweaked and improved the Pure bottle through trial and error, and from listening to customers. He's poured $100,000 into his venture, and now sells around $100,000 a year of the bottles.
Now the Pure bottle — available in two sizes, 17.5 ounces and 25 ounces — is distributed in about 100 health and wellness stores. He recently struck a deal to sell the bottles on Fab.com, a popular Internet shopping destination.
But the first store where he sold it was here in Baltimore: Trohv in Hampden. Gary Godbey, Trohv's manager, said Himelstein came in and asked the store representatives for feedback on the Pure bottle.
"We gave him our feedback and he listened to us," Godbey said. "It's done really well in the store."
Himelstein's bottle caught the eye of Marc Heinke, president of Precidio Design Inc. of Ontario. They met at the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago in March. Heinke, who runs a houseware product company, was interested in focusing more on water bottles and hydration for consumers.
And Himelstein knew he'd need a deep-pocketed partner to help him market and distribute his bottles all over the world. The two have since struck up a joint venture to sell the Pure bottle to specialty and mid- to high-end retailers, where customers may be more willing to spend $20 or more for a glass bottle.
"It's a pure, natural material," Heinke said. "You're just seeing a big trend back toward glass. We see this continuing to expand."
Estimates on the size of the reusable drinking bottle industry are not available, Heinke said, but he sees demand in North America, parts of Europe and Australia.
The Pure bottle is going up against larger competitors in the reusable drinking bottle industry. Some companies market plastic bottles that lack the controversial chemical Bisphenol A, or BPA, which some studies show may have a negative health impact. Other companies sell aluminum and stainless steel bottles.
All these companies are targeting consumers who want to drink out of a reusable bottle, as opposed to the single-use bottles — plastic, glass or metal — that dominate sales at retailers and restaurants.
Even the reusable glass bottle market is crowded. There are glass bottles shrouded in protective plastic, silicon, rubber and even bamboo.
The Pure bottle is different from its competitors because it is transparent, Himelstein said. The consumer can see what's in the bottle at all times. It also is dishwasher-safe.
Himelstein demonstrated the bottle's durability recently at his office, which is his home's basement. He took a hammer and pounded on the bottle's side three times before it shattered. The glass stayed wrapped inside the sheath of plastic — not a single shard on the floor.
But, Himelstein cautioned, the bottle is rendered unusable once it shatters and should be thrown away, because glass particles could disperse inside the container.
Himelstein is hoping his Pure bottle can ride a wave of consumer skepticism away from plastic and aluminum bottles, some of which also have been found to contain BPA. The chemical's use has been controversial in food packaging and bottling in recent years.
Some types of plastic bottles and older kinds of aluminum cans were found to leach more of the chemical in a study last year. Scientists at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that aluminum cans that used a newer liner, called EcoCare, did not release the chemical.
The Coca-Cola Co., which uses aluminum cans, says in a public notice on its website that "current levels of exposure to BPA through beverage packaging pose no health risk to the general population, including children."
Himelstein wanted to find a U.S. manufacturer for his bottles, but couldn't. The domestic glass packaging industry, which makes bottles for beverages and spirits, cosmetics and food, focuses on high-volume orders after years of consolidation, said Lynn Bragg, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, a trade group that represents the companies.
"Our members produce 30 billion [glass packaging items] annually," Bragg said.
So Himelstein found a manufacturer in China that could make the bottles in smaller quantities, in a run of thousands, not millions.
Recognizing that the environmentally aware buyers of his bottle want reassurance that it's safe if it's made in China, Himelstein spot-tests every shipment of bottles he receives for heavy metal contamination.
Meanwhile, the plastic coating, which is BPA-free and FDA-sanctioned for contact with food, and the top cover are both made in the U.S.
"I like to say about 70 percent is made in the U.S.," Himelstein said.
twitter.com/gussentCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun