Message in a Bottle
Reusable water bottles you'll actually want to use.
Laura Moser was online Aug. 23 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
Unless you're stationed in the rapidly disappearing Arctic, you've probably heard about the evils of bottled water these past few months. I've watched this whole slow-news-season "controversy" unfold with great interest, as it spoke to my own fraught love-hate relationship with bottled water.
Like many, I am both concerned about the environment and incredibly lazy. I also happen to be hydration-obsessed. I drink water around the clock in obscene, probably insalubrious quantities.
While I've tried to skirt the bottled-water issue whenever possible—I opt for tap both at home and at restaurants—I've never figured out how to get my fix when out and about. I dislike the tinny aftertaste of water-fountain water (which has never satisfied my volume requirements anyway). And the permanent water bottles I've tried were either too aggressively outdoorsy, or—like the commemorative Houston Astros squirt bottle I owned in the mid-1990s—too hideous.
Over the cries of my liberal conscience, I lapsed into the (yes: profligate, expensive) habit of buying bottled water en route to the subway several times a week. Sure, it's a rip-off, but the water is always so clean, so cool, so ... effortless.
What other options were there? The solution is clearly not, as one of several recent Times editorials (subscription required) on the subject recommend, to refill my Poland Spring bottle more than a few times. I don't mind the bacterial buildup these bottles' design encourages. But I certainly don't want to be gulping down the carcinogens and hormone disruptors that the PETE No. 1 plastic may leach after more than one use.
Last month, I decided to end this internal warfare once and for all. I went in search of a reusable water bottle that I actually liked—a stylish, versatile, easy-to-clean (and carry) container that I could refill anywhere, as often as my thirst dictated.
With one exception, the bottles I tested held roughly 1 liter of liquid. I enlisted the help of six friends and discovered, to my surprise, that there is no one water bottle for all seasons, or all peoples. Some of my ad hoc focus-group participants ranked the size of the bottle's mouth (and the possibility of spillage) as paramount, while others immediately rejected the uglier designs. Some focused on the taste of the water; others on the weight of the bottle. Despite these divergent priorities, some clear winners and losers eventually emerged.
I should add that what works on the trail doesn't always work in the mall, and vice versa. My quest was for a water bottle to accompany me in the urban, not the actual, jungle. It isn't only that I last went hiking in 1995. It's more that I seriously doubt the backpackers among us are responsible for the estimated 38 billion plastic bottles we sent to landfills last year.
I evaluated eight bottles, which ranged in price from $7.20 to $29.95, according to the following criteria:
Are there any health and/or environmental issues with the material? Is the bottle easy to clean? Dishwasher-safe? Is the price reasonable? Is the bottle easy to open and stow? Built to last?
I filled these bottles with tap and filtered Brita water. I used cold water, lukewarm water, and water that had been left sitting out overnight, then in the sunlight all day. I then conducted rigorous blind taste tests.
Design matters. If I feel stupid, or more stupid than usual, carrying a bottle around, I'll probably leave it at home and end up hitting the Volvic once again. The ideal water bottle will be an attractive lifestyle accessory that enhances all sorts of settings: not only the gym, but also the airport or the boardroom.
Portability is key. I evaluated weight, shape, size, and durability. Leakage and sweatiness were also considered: A bottle should fit inside your purse without imperiling your iPod. Does the bottle's mouth prevent or promote spillage? Does it dent when dropped? Can you sip from it in a moving vehicle without ruining your silk top?
Here are the results, from revolting to refreshing …
Katadyn Water Bottle Microfilter, $29.95 Though roughly the same size as the other bottles, the Katadyn holds only 21 ounces of water. That's because its central feature is a thick tubular filtration mechanism. While the Katadyn might be perfect for my next kayaking trip around Three Mile Island, I don't require its high-tech filtration system in my daily life. That being the case, I didn't find much to like about this bottle. It weighs too much for its capacity, and the water post-filtration tasted no different than water straight from the tap. Another flaw: The only path from bottle to mouth is through a thin straw attached to the filter. Squirting is therefore not optional, and cleaning is difficult, since the straw and filter are connected. The Katadyn also cost about 50 percent more than the next most expensive bottle tested, so leaving it on the subway would hurt.
Nalgene 32 oz. Polycarbonate Loop-Top Bottle in Moss Green, $9 Disclosure: I've never much liked Nalgene's trademark bottles (or the rugby players who toted them around my college campus). Still, in the name of science, I resolved to give Nalgene a fair shake.
Even without my prompting, audience responses were overwhelmingly negative. The mouth was judged impractically wide, and the bottle itself doesn't fit in most bike cages and car cup holders. Cheaper than most options, yes, and definitely a cinch to wash either by hand or in the dishwasher. But after a day in the sun, the water tasted flat and stale.
For me, the real stumbling block is the ongoing debate about the safety of Lexan, the polycarbonate plastic used in Nalgene bottles. Hard, durable polycarbonate, once considered a revolutionary innovation in plastics, has come under scrutiny following reports of its leaching bisphenol A, a suspected hormone disruptor, into the water. The bottles pose risks, it seems, only when brand-new or ancient—but why roll the dice? I drink water in pursuit of immortality, not a third breast.
Nalgene HDPE Rectangular Loop-Top Bottle, $7.20 These are the no-frills water bottles of my childhood, made from the same opaque, yucky-tasting No. 2 plastic used in Tupperware. Unlike Lexan, HDPE passes muster with the health authorities. And though impractical, I liked how the rectangular shape of this flask-style bottle—surprisingly compact for its 32-ounce capacity—offset the grim functionality of the white plastic. This bottle was also remarkably unsweaty, and left no rings on my countertop. The bad news: Water splashed out far too readily, and the bottle didn't retain the original temperature of its contents for long. After a few hours, the water tasted pretty nasty.
Klean Kanteen 27 oz. Stainless Steel Water Bottle (with stainless-steel loop cap), $19.95 The Klean Kanteen is a reliable choice if you don't mind a little extra weight on your shoulder. It keeps liquids at a nice consistent temperature, and the elegant shape fits just about anywhere. The bottle survived many a dishwasher cycle and resisted dents well. It did sweat after being filled with cold water, but only for half an hour. Cons? Water tasted slightly metallic after marinating overnight. One tester complained repeatedly about the circumference of the lip, which doesn't guarantee a spill-free drive to work. I disliked the over-earnest Planet Earth logo and kreatively spelled company name placed squarely in the center of the otherwise plain bottle.
New Wave Enviro 1 liter Stainless Steel Bottle, $13.95 The New Wave Enviro bottle is a cheaper stainless steel option than the Klean Kanteen, and blessedly free of the offensive design flourishes. Testers liked the plastic sports cap, which somehow solved the whole metallic-taste problem. The impossible-to-close loop top on my bottle detracted from this feature, however—I kept worrying it might burst open in my bag.
But this bottle has plenty to recommend. Water stays cool for several hours and is still tasty after sitting out overnight. The slender shape is a particular draw: perfect for car and gym cup holders, if a little too long for most bike cages. And the bottle's striated design also won high praise, especially among the males. Still, for me, the stainless steel was too hefty to haul around all day.
The Corntainer Corporation Reusable Corn Resin Water Bottle With Filter, $7.89 The sleeper hit of the bunch. The Corntainer isn't much to look at—in fact, it's almost identical to a throwaway Evian bottle you'd buy at your local deli. But unlike those, Corntainers are made from cornstarch instead of petroleum. Ingenious! Right? A major gripe with disposable water bottles, after all, is the oil used to make them. The production of plastic water bottles consume an estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, a figure that doesn't even take into account transporting that water to us from France or Fiji.
Now take the all-American Corntainer: It's made entirely out of renewable resources, composts within three months, and even comes with a chlorine filter that you can reuse up to 90 times. And since corn is the main ingredient, the ultra-portable, lightweight bottle won't leach scary chemicals after multiple uses. The question is: Will it last? The Corntainer is designed to biodegrade in compost systems; but how will it fare in my glove compartment? Sadly, I never got to put mine to the test, as it died young in the dishwasher, shrinking and warping beyond all recognition. True, the Hand Wash Only instructions were clearly indicated on the bottle—but then isn't laziness a basic character flaw of most bottled-water drinkers? If maintenance becomes too arduous, off I toddle to the deli.
I have high hopes for Corntainer's future. Right now, though, the bottle isn't durable enough to justify the expense. If only more bottled-water companies would start packaging their product in corn, then we might really be on to something …
Sigg Directions 1 liter bottle, $19.99 The century-old Swiss company Sigg seems to have the most advanced understanding of what these water bottles really are: baubles. Functional baubles, but baubles nonetheless—used only to the extent that they're admired. Some of Sigg's 144 designs are a little over-the-top, uncomfortably reminiscent of the Swatch watches of my early childhood. While I regret not opting for a "classic" design, these shiny Euro-chic bottles still way out-glam the competition.
Siggs are made out of aluminum coated with a water-based epoxy, a combo that initially worried me. I was reassured to learn that no lab tests have ever found any evidence of bisphenol A leaching, even after prolonged use. The aluminum does dent—every time I dropped the bottle, in fact—but the rather attractive dings have yet to affect its insides. The water tastes pretty good, too, even after a day in the sun. And testers liked the narrow mouth, which prevents dribbling but also makes the bottle trickier to clean. Again, the main problem here is portability: Though the lightest of the metal bottles, the Sigg still takes up substantial handbag real estate.
Platypus Platy Bottle, 34 oz., $7.95 I thought I'd hate the Platypus, which at first glance bears a disconcerting resemblance to a colostomy bag. But to my astonishment, the collapsible Platypus—which is made out of safe No. 5 polypropylene plastic—scored highest in two big categories. It's by far the most portable. And though originally designed for hikers, it also beautifully realizes my urban eco-chic ideal.
When emptied, a Platypus takes up no more room than a single folded-up section of newspaper. For recovering bottled-water addicts like me, that's a huge selling point. The Platypus is also a surprisingly stylish piece of plastic, with its turquoise lettering, fetching platypus icon, and hourglass midsection. On the downside, the Platypus has serious delivery problems—it's too prone to splashes and spills when more than half-full or half-empty. One of Platypus' more efficient tops might easily resolve these issues; maybe not. Either way, for hydration on the go, Platypus has no peer.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.