Refining the Hula Hoop: How the oil industry sparked a global plastics boom

Plastics are big business in Canada. A 2019 study of the industry found that annual sales are worth an estimated $35 billion.

'All of the major commodity plastics that we know today have their origins in fossil fuels'

In 1958, during the height of the Hula Hoop craze, children in Los Angeles demonstrate their skills for prizes on the show 'Art Linkletter's House Party.' (Associated Press)

'Tis the season for giving! That's why we're bringing back some of our favourite stories from 2019. This story was originally published on Sept. 9. Enjoy!

The Inventions of Oil is a CBC Edmonton series about oil and gas innovations hidden in our everyday lives

Two massive petrochemical plants in Alberta pump out millions of small, plastic pellets each day.

The pellets are polyethylene, the most in-demand plastic today. Depending on the pellet's type and density, it is used to create everything from grocery bags and food wrap to milk cartons, snowboards, cellphones and drain pipes.

Research and innovations from the oilpatch have become part of our lives in some surprisingly ordinary ways, well beyond the obvious impacts of jobs and fuel in our gas tanks. Petrochemical plants convert crude oil to make plastics, pharmaceuticals, beauty products and solvents.

Plastics are big business in Canada. A 2019 study of the industry said annual sales of plastics are worth an estimated $35 billion, and plastic exports account for 40 per cent of the country's domestic output per year.

Two new facilities under construction in Alberta will produce polypropylene pellets, which are used to make many plastic products. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

Around the world, the industry has, since the 1950s, grown at a rate faster than any other manufactured product. That's when the North American industry got rolling with help from a hip-swiveling toy craze known as the Hula Hoop.

A full-circle industry

Founders of the American toy company Wham-O were inspired by a wooden "exercise" hoop gaining popularity in Australia. But they needed a strong substance that would be easy to manufacture on a commercial scale in the U.S.

Around the same time, two research chemists from Phillips Petroleum — J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks — discovered they could make a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) from crude oil that was more durable and simpler to process than other plastics that were available then.

In 1954, their invention was introduced to the market under the trade name Marlex.

At first, no one wanted it. 

"The marketing team, who had thought it would sell very quickly, discovered that U.S. companies basically were not prepared for producing a plastics product," said Bruce Wells, executive director of the American Oil and Gas Historical Society.

Just when Phillips Petroleum started to become desperate to offload its supply, Wham-O took an interest, he said.

"There were actually two products, one was the Pluto Platter, now the Frisbee, and the other one that really increased the demand for Marlex was the Hula Hoop," Wells said. 

"That's when they discovered this was the perfect product for extruding into a nice hoop — and the obsession began." 

In 1958, the Hula Hoop was introduced and rapidly became the hippest toy around. When 20 million Hula Hoops sold in the first six months, the new plastic quickly entered many households. 

The Hula Hoop craze eventually waned but the business of manufacturing plastics kept growing.

"All of the major commodity plastics that we know today have their origins in fossil fuels of one type or another, and they all came out of either oil companies or chemical companies," Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, told CBC News.

"It was really only having the availability of these very cheap raw ingredients — and having the scale of industrial facilities  — that made it possible to start producing plastic at the mega-scale that we have now," said Freinkel, who had the opportunity to tour a Dow Chemical facility in Texas.

The Dow Chemical plant in Fort Saskatchewan is one of the world's largest ethane-cracking facilities. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

"I walked through a building with mazes of pipes where different chemicals and gasses were being transported," she said. "The most tangible tactile thing was seeing this rain of plastic polyethylene pellets come down this chute and into this bin.

"I stuck my hand in and it was kind of warm, and felt actually really nice."

Despite increasing attention on the environmental impact of plastic waste (a federal government report found Canada throws away 87% of its plastics), demand for these products continues to grow and plastic production expands each year.

"A lot of things that are vital to our lives are made of plastic," Freinkel said. "I want to be able to wear lightweight eyeglasses, I want to be able to have synthetic valves if my heart fails. There are a lot of valuable uses of plastic, but the real problem is we are very addicted to single-use plastic and disposable plastics.

"So much is used for very brief periods of time and it gets thrown away, and we haven't figured out how to close the loop on the plastics economy."

Alberta enters the plastic business

In 1974, the Progressive Conservative government under premier Peter Lougheed saw an opportunity to bring the growing business of manufacturing plastics to Alberta rather than shipping the raw feedstock to plants in Ontario.

A series of incentives attracted new development, and by 1979 a new polyethylene plant was operating in Joffre, Alta., east of Red Deer. Now owned by Nova Chemicals, the facility is described as one of the largest ethylene and polyethylene production complexes in the world.

"If you ask people, 'Why do we have a chemical and plastics industry in Alberta?' They'll say, 'oil,' " said Bob Masterson, president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. "That's a good answer. But it's completely the wrong answer."

The real answer is that Alberta has a steady supply of natural gas. 

The main component of natural gas is methane, but two other valuable components are ethane and propane. 

Ethane, can be cracked — superheated in a specialized plant — to become ethylene, which is made into polyethylene plastic. Polypropylene, another type of plastic with a higher melting point, is manufactured starting with propane.

Masterson said making plastics from natural gas rather than crude oil requires half the energy and produces half the emissions.

That gives Alberta a market advantage, he said, given that about one-third of the world's plastic comes directly from ethane separated from natural gas, while the remaining two-thirds comes from oil. 

Alberta is home to two of the world's largest ethane-cracking plants: the Dow Chemical plant in Fort Saskatchewan and the bigger Nova Chemicals plant near Red Deer.

Inter Pipeline is building a $3.5-billion Heartland Petrochemical Complex in Strathcona County to convert propane into plastic. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

"It's very advantageous that Alberta has [natural gas] that is not found too broadly in the rest of the world," Masterson said. "And it's really the only reason why Alberta is the only major landlocked plastics and chemistry industry in the world, and the rest is found on tidewater."

Ethane-cracking accounts for 92 per cent of the province's petrochemical capacity, according to a review of the industry by the Canadian Energy Research Institute. 

To attract companies to build new facilities in Alberta, Rachel Notley's NDP government created a series of grants and royalty credits.

The Petrochemical Diversification Program, which will award a total of  $500 million in grants and royalty credits, helped two companies — Pembina Pipeline Corp. and Inter Pipeline — build polypropylene facilities in Redwater and Fort Saskatchewan respectively. 

The Inter Pipeline complex is set to be operating by 2021 and Pembina Pipeline Corp. is planning for 2023. Both will turn propane from natural gas into plastic.

Currently, 3.3 million tons of polyethylene are made in Alberta each year. The new polypropylene facilities are expected to add another 1.1 million tons of plastic.

That's a welcome development, according to the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. 

"There were times when [propane] was being sold for a negative value," Masterson said. "The natural gas producers were actually paying people to put it on trains and take it to Texas, where it would get utilized."

At the same time, Canadian manufacturers continue to import polypropylene from other countries to supply the national automotive and medical industries, he said. 

"There was just no return on it in Alberta," he said, "and this is an attempt to address how do we get something out of it."