WILMINGTON - Jerry Costello wants his latest invention to find ubiquity for two reasons. One is that he believes it will help the environment by encouraging recycling and discouraging littering. The other is that he hopes it will give him the means to support his late son Michael’s legacy by helping to finance the COS Fund, a Wilmington-based 501(c)(3) that offers financial support to students in need.
If it takes off, Costello’s “Cap Valet” could become a regular part of day-to-day life. Cap Valet is a small piece of plant-based material that’s attached to the outside of a recyclable beverage bottle. Its purpose is to hold the bottle’s cap in place while a person is drinking, so that the cap doesn’t get lost.
Costello says the benefits of the Cap Valet, which he regards as an “environmentalist dream,” are numerous. By keeping the cap with the bottle, Cap Valet will help reduce litter because caps will not be lost or discarded, becoming embedded in the dirt of hiking trails or floating away into waterways. Moreover, by not getting lost, the cap will be more likely to accompany the bottle to the recycling center.
There was a time when bottle caps were uniformly not recycled, but with advances in technology, the tides are changing and some facilities now accept them. “And when they’re recycled, that’s a huge amount of plastic,” says Costello. “Because most of the plastic on the bottle is in the cap.”
Costello says Cap Valet “literally is the biggest innovation in bottling since the flip top can.” In 1975, Daniel F. Cudzik invented the “sta-tab,” a mechanism that kept the tab atop metal drinking cans. Prior to that, the tab came off the can.
“Throwing it was the thing to do,” says Costello. “And people were stepping on them everywhere. Anywhere there were a lot of people, there were flip tops.”
Costello hopes to use royalties from Cap Valet to endow the COS Fund, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of his son. The COS Fund helps students in need access learning tools and materials. In the past, the family has held fundraisers, but Costello says that after their daughter Erin relocated to Montana, he and his wife Kathie have found it hard to hold events. He sees Cap Valet as a potential way to continue to pay it forward through the COS Fund while also helping the environment.
Costello’s resolve is strong, and his energy is contagious. He talks about Cap Valet with an enthusiasm that inspires some envy that every bottle doesn’t have one yet. “There’s a positive sensation you get when you take the bottle in hand and pop it on,” says Costello. “Anyone that’s ever done it just goes, ‘Oh wow!’”
A bit of serendipity helped bring Cap Valet to fruition. Costello says that a few years back, he tried to get a patent but dropped the pursuit after, as he says, his then-attorney didn’t present it well and received a rejection. He picked it back up last year, asking his new attorney to see why the original pursuit had failed and whether he might be able to get it approved with some new presentation.
But his new attorney called with some surprising news. Someone else already held the patent. It turned out that a man in North Carolina had secured a patent on anything that kept a bottle cap.
Costello called the patent holder, who said he wasn’t planning to use it and would sell it to Costello for $7,500.
“I said yes, absolutely, I’ll take it,” says Costello. “He said he’d start drawing up the paperwork and I said great. Then I hung up the phone and I thought, ‘Where am I going to get $7,500? I don’t have $7,500.’”
Around the same time, Kathie Costello was cleaning and came across an unframed painting of a beach scene, which Costello had bought at a thrift shop for $3. She asked if he wanted to keep it, and he told her to look up the artist’s name to see if it had any value. As it turned out, the painting was by Paul Resika, an artist with some fame. After speaking to several galleries, Costello discovered Resika was particularly well known in Provincetown, MA. Costello considered consigning the painting with a Provincetown-based gallery, but he was concerned that might take too long, and he wanted his patent right away.
So, Costello got an idea. He called Provincetown’s local newspaper and placed an ad that said he had the painting and would accept $7,500 for it. Someone got in touch and offered him $9,500. Costello said absolutely.
With that, he was off and running. Costello secured the patent and had several prototypes made. Now, he’s hoping to connect with environmental groups that might be able to help him bring the Cap Valet to big bottlers like Coke and Pepsi.
“I’m hoping it’s embraced by an environmentalist group,” says Costello. “It’s a green idea from the Green Mountain State.” If Cap Valet does find its way to drinking bottles in a cooler near you, it won’t be the first of Costello’s bottle-related inventions to become a cultural norm.
Midway through explaining Cap Valet, Costello disappears for a few minutes, and the clinks and clanks coming from an adjoining room indicate he’s rummaging through a cabinet or two. He returns with a plastic bottle akin to what’s sometimes referred to in culinary supply circles as a “store ’n’ pour.” You’d know one if you saw one. They’re used for mixers behind bars and salad dressings at buffets. It has a capped cylindrical base that holds liquid, which stores and stacks in the fridge. When a bar or restaurant is ready to use the mixer or dressing, the cap is removed and a long neck with a pour spout is screwed onto the base, which is the form most people see the bottles in.
“That is being used in every single bar and restaurant in the entire world,” says Costello. “My partner screwed me out of it. We took it to market and had a royalty agreement. We sold it. Competition was killing us; we were too small. He financed it but it was my idea. We were best friends. And he wound up cutting a deal with the people we were selling to that cut my royalty out and doubled his. I sued him, and it took six years for the suit. I won. The decision gave me $475,000. But he was broke. So I got $40,000 out of it.”
The sting of the experience seems to have worn off in the years that have passed since. Costello appears to be at peace with the whole debacle. “Eh,” he says with a shrug. “You live and you learn, and (the bottle is) a great thing to have.”
No matter, anyway. Onto the next. If Costello has his way, it won’t be long before the “pop!” of bottle caps attaching to the sides of bottles becomes part of our daily experience, embedded in our muscle memory and music to our routine-loving ears. It may just become as common as the refreshing click and release of a soda can popped open, its tab securely stationed atop its container, to the rejoicing of recyclers and environmentalists everywhere.