Enter soda bottles ... but not from PET
PET gets all the headlines, but the first plastic soft drink bottles were by Monsanto from acrylonitrile - specifically the copolymer, polyacrylonitrile-styrene.
Monsanto hired McKinsey & Co. in the 1960s to study how it could coordinate its resources better. The consultants found that six or seven separate projects were working on the issue of permeation. Their advice: Develop a plastic beer bottle.
In 1968, Monsanto executives assigned Gigliotti to lead Lopac, or Low Oxygen Permeation Packaging. He quickly contacted Allen Heininger, who was head of Monsanto's food flavoring and ingredients business. He went to the experts at Plax Corp., which Monsanto had purchased 10 years earlier, to check their ability to make sample bottles in a hurry.
Heininger took Gigliotti on a whirlwind tour meeting top beer executives Augie Busch and Jeffrey Coors, and Robert Woodruff, president of Coca-Cola Co. and others. His proposal to each was Monsanto would send them small bottles to test, but would not identify the material.
``I had a handshake agreement and I went off,'' he said. Monsanto tested and sent out bottle samples from a number of resins, including PET, polystyrene, ethylene vinyl alcohol and acrylonitrile.
Monsanto decided PET and acrylonitrile offered the best combination of properties and cost.
Coke called and requested a meeting. Coke's product manager reviewed opinion research that showed that if Pepsi had a plastic bottle and Coke did not, Coke would lose significant market share. Other research showed consumers wanted a plastic bottle, but were concerned plastic would impact the taste.
Woodruff announced Coke was ready to buy Monsanto's entire plastic bottle capacity. He had a check for $1 million.
After caucusing for a few minutes, the Monsanto officials proposed giving Coke rights to 85 percent of its nameplate bottle capacity in exchange for Coke's financing of research and experimental work.
Coke rolled out a big consumer research program. People snapped up acrylonitrile bottles in New Bedford, Mass. Coke gave the go-ahead for commercial production in 1972. Monsanto would set up three factories to blow mold bottles in three sizes: 10- and 16-ounce in the signature contour bottle and a wide-mouth 32-ouncer with flat sides for labeling. According to Gigliotti, Coke rejected the larger family-sized bottles, which Monsanto had proposed in PET.
``They wanted to compete with Pepsi down in the hand-held drink,'' he said.
Monsanto officially rolled out its Cycle-Safe in 1975. Coke called the bottle the Easy-Goer. Gigliotti said the resin made an excellent bottle that was both recyclable and refillable.
Then it died.
Monsanto had 100,000 of the 32-ounce bottles ready to hit the Chicago market in early 1977. Later that year, the Food and Drug Administration stepped in to ban the bottle.
Explaining what happened gets complicated. Gigliotti said the issue stemmed from a turf battle between FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, still a fledgling agency. The bitter battle between Coke and Pepsi also played a role, he said. Also, an environmental group sued FDA over a test bottle using Sohio's Barex resin, which Gigliotti said was acrylonitrile styrene modified with butadiene rubber - ABS. FDA issued a news release saying material migrating from Barex would someday be found to be harmful.
``It was a different material. We were guilty by association,'' he said.
But it didn't matter. Gigliotti said environmentalists began picketing supermarkets holding signs with Coke's slogan, Coke Brings Life To Your Party. ``They had crossed out `life' and put a skull and crossbones. Death.''
Monsanto shuttered its bottle factories in 1977, putting 800 people out of work. Gigliotti said it was two years before large-volume PET soda bottles came out.
He took early retirement and went on to co-found TopWave Instruments Ltd., which makes laboratory and testing equipment for plastic food and beverage container. He also started a consulting company, MGA Inc.
Ironically, seven years after killing it, the FDA in 1984 approved the Cycle-Safe bottle. The agency said the bottle's acrylonitrile content had been reduced to safety levels, but Gigliotti said the bottle was safe all along. FDA earlier had said nothing harmful could come out of the Monsanto bottle.
Things could have been different, he said. ``We could make a beer bottle for less than a nickel.''