Have you had a family grill out lately? If you did, it was probably on a gas grill or a good old fashioned charcoal grill, which is my personal favorite. Either way, we all owe a debt of thanks to Henry Ford for kick starting this little piece of Americana tradition. When Ford’s Kingsford, Michigan sawmill was churning out parts for his motor cars (why else would the Kingsford High School sports teams be called ‘The Flivvers’?), Henry looked out at the accumulating piles of sawdust and decided that there had to be a use for what had previously been considered “waste material”. Waste, it seems, is the mother of innovation and Henry’s research department eventually developed the process to create charcoal briquettes. With vast Upper Peninsula forest holdings and other sawmills across the landscape (like those at Sidnaw, Alberta and Pequaming), Ford had a vested interest in eliminating waste while stimulating new economic growth in the northland.
There is a similar story told that John D. Rockefeller also had an epiphany when he looked out over one of his oil refineries and asked, “What’s that burning?” when he saw flames shooting from some smokestacks. It was one of the by-products of the oil refining process, ethylene gas, that was being disposed of. Legend has it that Rockefeller testily replied, “ I don’t believe in wasting anything! Figure out something to do with it!” Whether or not this conversation actually occurred is immaterial. What counts is that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was the first to learn the trick of isolating hydrocarbons from crude petroleum which helped spur the modern petrochemical industry that produces the raw, unprocessed polymers known as resins. In 1933, two British chemists at the Imperial Chemical Industries were tinkering around to find something useful to do with these resins. When they hit upon the process for producing polyethylene, they set in motion an industry that would see polyethylene become the first American plastic to sell more than one billion pounds in a year.
In her fascinating book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010), Susan Freinkel traces the rise of plastics from a 19th century curiosity to a 21st century juggernaut. To illustrate how the plastic industry evolved, she looks at it through the lens of everyday items like combs, chairs, medical equipment, and toys like Hula Hoops and Frisbees. Like most modern innovations, the plastic age began before modern plastics were even dreamed up. Take the humble comb. One of the oldest tools unearthed, combs were first made of bone, wood, cattle horn, and the shell of the hawksbill turtle. When overharvesting of the turtle shells began to affect the comb industry, human innovators began looking for a suitable replacement material. The same can be said for billiard balls. By 1867, warning flags were being raised that the indiscriminate harvesting of elephant tusks was pushing the species toward extinction, particularly in Ceylon where the best quality billiard ball ivory was found. As early as 1863, a billiards supplier in New York offered a ‘handsome fortune of $10,000 in gold’ to anyone who could find a suitable replacement for ivory. The cause was taken up by one John Wesley Hyatt in Upstate New York. With no formal training in chemistry, he began an extensive period of trial and error experimentation using the cellulose in cotton paired with various solvents. The substance he eventually produced was dubbed ‘celluloid’ by his brother Isaiah (meaning ‘like cellulose’). The first versions did not have the same bounce as ivory and later versions made such a loud cracking sound when the balls collided, early saloon keepers found their clientele reaching for their guns after a particularly loud retort. Hyatt never collected the prize money, but then again, he didn’t have to. The celluloid he invented turned out to be the perfect material to mass produce combs, and eventually moving pictures.
Hyatt’s marketing campaign claimed, “Celluloid (has) given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” He said it was just like “Petroleum coming to the relief of the whales.” Celluloid could be manufactured to resemble any number of more expensive, natural materials used in the comb industry and for a fraction of the cost. If there was a product out there to be mass produced, celluloid became the manufacturer’s material of choice. When the process for rendering images on thin celluloid film was developed, there was a profound cultural shift in human entertainment. Ironically, film nearly destroyed the comb industry when movie star Irene Castle bobbed her previously long hair. Female fans followed suit and the comb industry began to disappear. Faced with the inevitable, comb manufacturer Sam Foster told his workers not to worry; “We’ll make something else.” His new gimmick, sunglasses, were a big hit and they created another new mass market product whose tag line “Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?” carried the company to Hollywood and beyond.
Wars are never a good thing, but they are always boon for human innovation, particularly when searching for ways to replace naturally occurring resources with synthetic ones. One of the most innovative couples of the last century, Charles and Ray Eames, used their artistic talents to design better ways to mass produce molded medical supplies during WWII. Unfortunately, the demand for plastic prosthetics created by the same war negated the positive product developments spurred forward in a wartime economy. There were so many plastic like synthetics created before and after World War II that very little time, money, or effort goes into developing new forms of plastic today. Instead, chemists tinker with the five main formulas to produce cheaper, more versatile products. Hundreds of billions of tons of plastic products now dominate the world economy, but unlike the natural materials that the plastics replaced, they are making us all “a little plastic”. Freinkel points out that we are only now beginning to understand the long term environmental and health effects of our plastic consuming lifestyle, hence her subtitle: A Toxic Love Story.
On a sunnier note, a no more successful plastic story can be found than that of the Frisbee.
Today, we most associate the Frisbee with that corporate giant of fun Wham-O who also brought us the Hula-Hoop and the Slip ‘n Slide. Wham-O was started in 1948 by high school friends Rich Knerr and Arthur Melin (also known as “Spud”) so they could sell slingshots and other sporting goods by mail. If it was a toy that could put your eye out, The Boys probably marketed it through Wham-O. They hit it big time when Phillips Petroleum’s attempts to perfect a new semi rigid form of polyethylene left them with tons of unusable plastic stashed in their warehouses. It turned out to be perfect for Wham-O’s new fad toy of 1958, the Hula-Hoop. The fifteen million pounds of waste plastic that Phillips couldn’t giveaway made Wham-O a lot of money, but then nearly broke them when the fad died off and the orders dropped from tens of millions of units to zero. Fortunately for The Boys, they had purchased the rights for the Frisbee from Walter Frederick Morrison. As the Hula Hoop is to a flash in the pan, the Frisbee has been the little battery advertising bunny for Wham-O, but it took some time to get it right.
Walter Morrison started the ball rolling (or the disk flying) in 1937 when his girlfriend’s family introduced him to a family game they called “flipping” that involved tossing a metal popcorn-pot lid. When he and Lucille were flipping a cake pan at the beach the next summer, someone approached them and asked if they could buy one and suddenly, they were in business. Walter returned to California after serving as a fighter pilot in WWII with a pretty good idea of what makes things fly. His wartime experience with plastics put him on the road to a new design that he sometimes convinced people flew on an invisible wire when he and Lucille demonstrated their product at county fairs. By the time he met The Boys at Wham-O, it had morphed into The Pluto Platter which fit right in with the late 1950 surge of interest in all things sci fi and UFO.
The Frisbee as we know it today evolved when Knerr and Melin put “Steady” Ed Headrick to the task of developing the sport of Frisbeeing. The name was a take off from the Frisbie Pie company tins that were used for flipping in New England since the 1930s. After he signed on with Wham-O in 1964, Headrick improved the aerodynamic design, added the concentric ridges on the top (now known as the “lines of Headrick” to those in the Frisbee universe), and jump started the many Frisbee disc sports we see today. Headrick himself invented Frisbee golf and when he passed away in 2002, he had his ashes molded into Frisbees so his friends could throw him around.
Frisbee manufacturing was centered in Southern California until The Boys sold the company in 1982. Since then, the manufacturing of the iconic disks shifted first to Mexico, then to Hong Kong and China, and it is now slowly shifting back to the United States. This mirrors the entire plastics industry that has seen production shift overseas with Saudi Arabia becoming the new hub of the plastics industry. A 140-gram Frisbee starts out as less than a penny’s worth of resin that the toy manufacturer will pay about twenty cents to purchase and another dollar to make the actual Frisbee. By the time it hits the seller, the price tag will start at $8. Of course, the more specialized the disk (for Frisbee golf, Guts Frisbee, Ultimate Frisbee and so on), the higher the price.
If two titans of industry like Ford and Rockefeller could see the benefit of not wasting anything, why do we find it so difficult to see the advantages of recycling and remanufacturing things today? There is money in them thar mountains of trash but only if we go after it.
Top Piece Video: I am sure Brodie Smith makes Headrick proud (even though he is dead)!