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Fritz Water Vest Offers Solution to Water Access in Developing Countries

The Fritz Water Vest helps free up hands

Creative ideas can sometimes grow out of the need to solve a problem. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. For Fritz Yambrach, professor and director of packaging at San Jose State University in California, decades of experience in the packaging industry and concern for access to water in impoverished or disaster areas led to an idea for a simple, yet life-changing solution: the Fritz Water Vest.

The vest is a pouch-like water-carrying device that fits over the head and rests on the shoulders, chest and back of the wearer, helping to reduce early health risks in children – both male and female – who carry large volumes of water over long distances. The simple design distributes weight evenly, which helps with overall posture, freeing up the hands and allowing the wearer to carry other necessary items.

“You see pictures of people in these desperate areas just schlepping water in dirty 5 gallon containers on their heads and reusing oil jugs, and it’s just this incredibly bush-leagued way to move materials around,” says Yambrach, who came up with the idea for the vest roughly 10 years ago. “I thought we in the packaging industry can improve on that.”

The vest design is what Yambrach likes to call “appropriate technology,” a term he heard from Virginia Tech’s Dr. Joe Marcy, the head of the university’s department of food science and technology.

“You don’t want to give these people cutting edge because they don’t need that,” Yambrach says. “What they need is something that’s appropriate for them that they can take and they can modify.”

Packaging Partners

For the vest to make a big impact, Yambrach needed to assemble a leadership team of packaging professionals.

In 2007, Yambrach started working on the vest design with Russell Smith from Heritage Packaging, a Victor, New York-based specialty converter of flexible and rigid packaging that is currently manufacturing the vest.

“Our ballpark cost is around $5 for a vest and that’s influx depending on material cost and things like that,” Yambrach says.

Along with Heritage Packaging, Yambrach tapped Sal Pellingra, a colleague and friend of his and vice president of innovation and technology at ProAmpac.

“It was a great project for me because when the hurricanes hit Haiti, I went down there three years in a row and saw how some of the locals there had to carry water around,” says Pellingra.

ProAmpac contributed the reusable material for the vest as well as some ideas regarding its design. The material, which Yambrach describes as “an incredibly robust, multi-layer nylon structure,” enables the vest to hold anything that flows – grains, legumes, etc. – thanks in part to the anti-microbial additive on the inside of the vest that inhibits odors and mildew.

The material also allows the vest to be reused and folded without tearing. And to further test its tear resistance and robustness, Yambrach says he’s even frozen them and thrown them around his lab.

“The idea is that they are going to be abused,” Yambrach says. “You want to give people something that is going to last for a little while at least.”

The Fritz Water Vest team also includes former students and close friends Mike Licata, U.S. director of sales and marketing at Yupo Paper, who serves as the team’s market development adviser; Michael Robinson, a senior industrial designer at Colgate Palmolive, who serves as the team’s insight and design lead; and Eric Steigelman, founder and CEO of Bonfire Wines, who is leading Solutions Inc., the nonprofit arm of the Fritz Water Vest, with marketing and social media exposure development.

“When you go to a friend with an idea and they like it, they want to support you,” Yambrach says.

Global Impact

The Fritz Water Vest is currently being beta-tested in Ethiopia, Haiti, Burundi and the Dominican Republic with the help of nonprofits like Frances Kitchen Project and Surge for Water.

As the team gathers feedback from the nonprofits, they’re hoping to partner with other non-governmental organizations like Facebook or Google as well as leaders in the packaging industry like the Flexible Packaging Association to support their efforts this year.

Yambrach is also hoping to be selected by the Institute of Packaging Professionals’ Packaging that Saves Food Awards. Winners will be on display at the World Packaging Organization’s Save Food exhibition during Interpack 2017, which takes place this May in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“It’s one of the key issues in the world today, the idea of providing clean water, providing food for people in the world. As the population grows these are the key things we have to address,” Yambrach says. “There’s this great quote that the environment isn’t something we pass down to our children. It’s something we borrow from them. It really hits home when you think of things that way.”