Image as Disc: Wham-O, Frisbee, and the Modern Age of Plastics
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an ever-increasing number of those toys: Hiram McCann, “Doubling, Tripling, Expanding: That’s Plastics,” Monsanto magazine (October 1947): 5.
Today, plastics are a given: Author interview with Robert von Goeben, cofounder of Green Toys, September 2007.
Fleshy vinyl permitted: “Trends in Toys,” Modern Plastics (June 1952): 71.
Silly Putty: Fenichell, Plastic, 260–62.
To promote its house brand: Bill Hanlon, Plastic Toys: Dimestore Dreams of the ’40s and ’50s (Atgen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Inc., 1993), 10–14.
eight different chemical companies quickly built factories: By that time, the original inventors of polyethylene, DuPont and Britain’s Imperial Chemical Industries, had lost control of their invention in an antitrust action. That opened the doors for other chemical companies to start producing it. Meikle, American Plastic, 189–90.
pop beads: Ibid., 190.
Such boom-bust cycles: The industry’s growth has slowed in recent years. For instance, as Plastics News reported, the total compounded sales growth for plastic sales between 1973 and 2007 was 4.2 percent, but in the final six years of that period, the rate of growth was half that amount. The slowdown at the end of that thirty-four-year-long stretch reflects how the market cooled “after major conversions from materials like wood and metal took place in the 1970s and 1980s . . . it’s also a sign of how production moved from North America to parts of the world with lower labor and production costs.” Frank Esposito, “Resin Market Slows in North America,” Plastic News, September 10, 2007.
the ping-ponging relationship: Meikle, American Plastic, 190; Walsh, Wham-O Super-Book, 62–69. At the fad’s height, Wham-O was making 20,000 hoops a week.
“We damn near went broke”: Walsh, Wham-O Super-Book, 69.
Melin and Knerr rechristened Morrison’s baby: Ibid., 78–79. Morrison groused about the name, complaining it didn’t describe anything. But for all his grumbling, he recognized, his deal with Wham-O made him wealthy, and for many years he continued to work with the company, promoting flying discs. By the time Morrison died, in 2010 at the age of 90, Wham-O had changed hands repeatedly, and he had little contact with it anymore.
Headrick redesigned the Frisbee: Ibid., 191.
Standard Oil was the first to figure out: Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 235.
production of plastics consumes: Anthony Andrady and Mike A. Neal, “Applications and Societal Benefits of Plastics,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364 (June 2009): 1980; Anthony Andrady et al., “Environmental Issues Related to the Plastics Industry: Global Concerns,” in Andrady, ed., Plastics and the Environment (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2003), 38. The American Chemistry Council states that plastics production accounts for about 4 to 5 percent of natural gas consumed in the United States annually and about 3 percent of oil.
an industry based on waste: Barry Commoner, introduction to Geiser, Materials Matter. Also, author interview with Ken Geiser, director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, January 2010.
With the rise of integrated: Meikle, American Plastic, 82–83.
Polyethylene was discovered: Fenichell, Plastic, 200–202; ICI chemist quoted in Meikle, American Plastic, 189.
British took advantage of that dielectric quality: Fenichell, Plastic, 202.
“stiffer than steel”: Colin Richards, “Polyethylene, a Phenomenon,” Plastiquarian 40 (October 2008): 14.
polyethylene was the first plastic: Society for the Plastics Industry, “Definition of Resins-Polyethylene,” accessed at http://www.plasticsindustry.org/AboutPlastics/content.cfm?ItemNumber=1400&navItemNumber=1128.
we encounter many other kinds: Richard Thompson et al., “Our Plastic Age,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364 (2009): 1973. The Concise Encyclopedia of Plastics, page 57, states there are about seventeen thousand different varieties of plastic, and other experts offer higher estimates, in the range of 30,000.
the five basic families of commodity plastics: American Chemistry Council, The Resin Review 2008, 16–17. U.S. polymer production peaked at 115 billion pounds in 2007. But with the recession that followed, resin production fell below 100 billion pounds for the first time in a decade as demand from various end markets shrank, according to the American Chemistry Council.
No significant new plastics have been introduced: Author interviews with industry consultant Glenn Beall, Glenn Beall Plastics, Ltd., March 2008; and David Durand, senior consultant, Townsend Solutions, March 2008. To illustrate the challenges of making entirely new polymers, Beall described General Electric’s fifteen-year, $50 million push to make Ultem, or polyetherimide, a plastic designed to withstand very high temperatures. By the time the plastic was ready for the market, the patents had just about run out. Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, cost DuPont $500 million before its 1982 launch. Emsley, Molecules at an Exhibition, 143.
For decades, it’s constituted about a third: American Chemistry Council, Resin Review 2008, 25–31.
according to calculations by Skidmore College: Author interview with Raymond Giguere, June 2008. Giguere did his calculations in 2006 and assumed that the average weight (mass) of an American was 150 pounds and that the U.S. population was 300 million, which results in a total of 45 billion pounds. The U.S. produced about 39 billion pounds of polyethylene in 2006. Production was down slightly in 2009, to 26 billion pounds, but the population had certainly increased.
Dow arrived here in 1940: Dow had gotten into that business accidentally. In the process of harvesting minerals from brine, the company accumulated byproducts, such as ethyl chloride. Company chemists began investigating ways to use them; one of the products proposed was ethyl cellulose, a semisynthetic polymer made with wood pulp, which Dow began marketing in 1935 under the name Ethocel. Likewise, the company got into making polystyrene in the late 1930s as a way to deal with excess supplies of ethylene. Ethylene could be reacted with benzene, another processing waste product, to form ethyl benzene, which in turn could be made into styrene, the base ingredient for polystyrene, the plastic Dow sold under the trademarked name Styron. Jack Doyle, Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical and the Toxic Century (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004), 146–47.
contaminating the ground water: Dina Cappiello and Dan Feldstein, “In Harm’s Way: A Special Report,” Houston Chronicle, January 20, 2005, and author interview with Sharron Stewart, longtime environmental activist in the Freeport area, February 2009.
It pays more than $125 million in state and local taxes: Author interview with Tracie Copeland, Dow Chemical, February 2009.
about 70 percent of plastics: Author interview with Howard Rappaport, global business director, Chemical Market Associates, Inc., February 2009. Most crackers are able to process only one or the other.
two carbons can bond to form the gas ethylene: Ethylene is the largest-volume chemical made, and half of all ethylene produced is used to make polyethylene.
“Dow has come a long way”: Author interview with Charles Singletary, business manager, Local 564, International Union of Operating Engineers, February 2009.
These pellets, also known as nurdles: Some plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride, are shipped in the form of powder rather than as pellets.
a seismic change is under way: Steve Toloken, “Industry Shifts Toward Asia Continues,” Plastics News, March 16, 2009; author interview with Rappaport; presentation by Rappaport, “Economy, Energy, Feedstocks, Polymers and Markets,” March 2009.
the Middle East’s share: Author interview with Rappaport.
the Saudis are trying: Ibid. The country is building two complexes along the Red Sea coast to lure investors who want to set up plastics-production facilities. As Rappaport put it, the Saudi government is essentially telling product manufacturers, “ ‘We can supply you with the pellets here and you can make your finished goods, and we’ll ship finished goods around rather than pellets.’ Which is what they do in China. It’s the China model, except the Middle East has a lower raw material cost.”
A wide gap still exists: Li Shen, Juliane Haufe, and Martin K. Patel, “Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bioplastics,” a report commissioned by European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence and the European Bioplastics Council, November 2009, 7.
plastics production to swell: Ibid., 8.
“an ‘ATM unit’ ”: Author e-mail correspondence with Danny Grossman, December 2009.
Every mold maker in Southern California: Author interview with Clare Goldsberry, contributing editor, Injection Molding Magazine, June 2008.
Wham-O stayed put until: Mattel owned Wham-O briefly, from 1994 to 1997, and then sold it to a group of American investors, who next sold it to Hong Kong-based investors. In 2009, an American company, Manufacturing Marvel, bought it.
a place that’s been described: James Fallows, Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (New York: Vintage Books, 2009), 66.
“the heart pumping China’s emergence”: Robert Marks, “Robert Marks on the Pearl River Delta,” Environmental History 9 (2004): 296.
As many as fifty thousand factories: Steve Toloken, “Ecologists Seeking to Clean Up China’s PRD Zone,” Plastics News, December 31, 2008.
twice as many people: Steve Toloken, Guangzhou-based reporter for Plastics News, in e-mail correspondence with author, July 2010.
foreign investment at the incredible rate: Marks, “Pearl River Delta,” 296–97.
Shipping containers left: Fallows, Postcards, 6.
If the region were a country: Michael J. Enright et al., The Greater Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong: Invest Hong Kong, 2007), 1. The estimate is based on 2005 data.
By the 1990s, the silkworms: Marks, “Pearl River Delta,” 297.
Guangdong has been a locus for international trade: Sun Qunyang, Larry Qiu, and Li Jie, “The Pearl River Delta: A World Workshop,” in Kevin H. Zhang, ed., China as the World Factory (London: Routledge, 2006).
Hong Kong had a strong plastics-processing industry: Hong Kong Government Industry Department, “Hong Kong’s Manufacturing Industries,” December 1996. Author interviews with L. T. Lam, Forward Winsome Industries, Tony Lau, Canfat Manufacturing, Dennis Wong, March 2009. A few manufacturers tried earlier to set up shop in the mainland. Lam, founder of Winsome Industries, claimed to have been one of the very first plastic-toy makers in Guangdong. He opened a factory there in the 1940s but then had to retreat back to Hong Kong when the Communists took power in 1949. When we met in Hong Kong, he showed me that he claimed was one of the first plastic toys ever produced in Asia: a whistle with a bird in a little round cage on the top.
Enticed through Deng’s open door: According to author Leslie Chang, the first mainland factory was the Taiping Handbag Factory of Hong Kong, which opened in Dongguan in 1978 and made one million in Hong Kong dollars in its first year. “The factory processed material from Hong Kong into finished goods, which were shipped back to Hong Kong to be sold to the world. It established the model for thousands of factories to follow.” Leslie Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2009), 29.
the average worker at Mattel’s plant: Jonathan Dee, “A Toy Maker’s Conscience,” New York Times Magazine, December 25, 2007.
China Labor Watch reported: China Labor Watch, “Investigation on Toy Suppliers in China: Workers Are Still Suffering,” August 2007.
products are destined to go overseas: China’s domestic toy market is still minuscule; retail toy sales totaled $603 million in 2006, compared to the more than $20 billion Americans spend on toys. But this is starting to change with the rise of a Chinese middle class. Those parents who now can afford it often shop for foreign-brand toys, such as Legos from Denmark or Transformers made by Japan-based Bandai. Even if the toys were actually made in China, Chinese parents assume the foreign brand name means they will be safer and less likely to contain hazardous materials such as lead paint. Elaine Kurtenbach, “Chinese Kids Get Foreign-Brand Toys,” Associated Press, December 14, 2007.
epidemic of toy recalls: See, for instance, Michael Lauzon, “Chinese Toy Recalls May Be Boon to U.S.,” Plastics News, December 17, 2007.more than 5,000 toy companies: Steve Toloken, “Safety Concerns Cost Chinese Toy-Makers,” Plastics News, January 27, 2009.
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