What Does a Water Vest Bring? Opportunity.
Margaret Lankoi, a 27-year-old mother of four who lives in southern Kenya, gingerly picks up a “jerry can,” a bright yellow plastic container that originally held cooking oil. Lankoi fills the container with drinking water and slings what now weighs 44 pounds on her back for the long trek home. “It’s not easy,” she says. “I often feel pain in my back, but there’s no choice.”1
In many developing countries, women and children are responsible for collecting and transporting the family’s water. They are the family members who suffer the physical burden of carrying heavy jugs on their backs or on top of their heads, and have to do so, at times, several times every day. Jo-Anne Geere, a lecturer at the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, found that 69 percent of people who collect water in South Africa feel spinal pain and some 38 percent experience back pain. Geere theorizes that the weight of lugging heavy, awkward containers compresses the discs in the carriers’ necks, resulting in headaches and striking pain patterns in their backs and hands.2
Fritz Yambrach, Director and Professor, Packaging, at San Jose State University has spent more than four decades in the packaging industry. He took note of these issues and came up with an ingenious solution: the Fritz™ Water Vest.3 As the name suggests, the vest is designed like a pouch that fits over a wearer’s head and rests on his or her shoulder, chest and back. Holding 20 pounds of water, the vest distributes weight evenly, improves posture and frees the wearer’s hands.
“There are NGOs [non-governmental organizations] providing wells and filtration systems to people in areas where water is scarce,” Yambrach says. “What was lacking was a means to move potable water from the source to people’s homes.”
Simplicity and Genius
The vest is the brainchild of a team of packaging professionals who came together to develop, manufacture and market an alternative to painful water-carrying techniques. “We immediately recognized that water transportation was a serious issue and could even become treacherous at times, like needing to climb steep embankments while carrying heavy pails of water,” says Michael Robinson, an industrial designer who helped with the vest’s development.4
The Fritz™ Water Vest uses advanced materials so it lasts in the type of dry and rugged environments where it is most needed. A proprietary lamination developed by ProAmpac, of Cincinnati Ohio, is sealed by heat and using a technique developed by Heritage Packaging of Victor, New York combine to create the unique properties of this robust product. Moreover, the design uses an additive that inhibits the growth of mold, mildew and odors. As a result, the vest is antimicrobial, ergonomic and reusable.
“We took a simple packaging technology — heat sealing — and married it with a clever design and cutting-edge materials that are incredibly robust and have a hygienic quality to them,” says Yambrach. “I’ve put the vests in my freezer and thrown them around my lab and they’ve held up quite well.”
The vest received top honors from the 2017 DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation, which marks major advancements in packaging technology to address diverse and particular needs of consumers in markets around the world.5
“One doesn’t have to be a package designer or engineer, or even a visionary humanitarian to see the simplicity and genius of the Fritz™ Water Vest,” says David Luttenberger, a judge for the awards. Luttenberger compares the vest to a gas tank, because the water remains still inside the vest and the weight is balanced within the cavity where the water sits, making it easier to transport.6
The vest took top honors amongst a sea of innovation, including a breakthrough in vacuum packaging for protein and an unusually-shaped pizza box made of 100 percent sustainably-farmed sugarcane fiber that keeps the pizza crisp and warm for a longer period of time. “The packaging industry is propelled by science, inspiration and creativity,” says Bernard Rioux, Global Packaging Marketing Leader, DuPont Performance Materials. “The Fritz™ Water Vest shows how advanced materials, creatively employed, can help address profound global issues and improve people’s lives.”
Health and Education
The challenge of transporting water has surprising ramifications, affecting not only health but education. In 2016 researchers at George Washington University conducted a study that analyzed water collection by women and children in 24 sub-Saharan African countries. They found that 13.5 million women and 3.3 million children are responsible for water collection trips that take 30 minutes or longer.7
Many of those children reported losing time at school because of the time spent on their water-hauling chores. However, with the Fritz™ Water Vest carrying water is much easier than using pails and other containers. Theoretically, children could collect water, go to school and then take the water home. “A vest might seem like a simple thing, but it all cascades down,” says Yambrach.
With the engineered product design for added durability, improved organoleptics and mildew and odor reduction, the vests are expensive to manufacture when compared to food and non-food packaging. Yambrach is looking to the industry to help offset the cost. The idea is to make the Fritz™ Water Vest affordable to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and those they will be helping in who they will be helping developing countries and disaster zones.
“If companies got behind this in a small way, they could demonstrate that the packaging industry is committed to making a big impact in the world,” he says.