Kingsport, Tenn. — David Cornell had a front-row seat in the early years of PET bottle development and plastics recycling.
Now, Cornell is going into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
He was the longtime technical director for the Association of Plastic Recyclers and had a 28-year career at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, where he still makes his home. He runs a consulting firm, DD Cornell Associates LLC.
Cornell, 72, remembers the Garbage Barge of the late 1980s, searching for a home for New York's trash. He's an expert on life-cycle analysis. He palled around with famous garbologist William Rathje, an archeologist who dug through trash, proving that nothing degrades in a landfill.
"He was highly flamboyant. He would show up to give a talk in Levi's and a sports coat. He was a showman," Cornell said.
Cornell was on the scene in the first days of recycling. He was nominated to the Plastics Hall of Fame by Edward Socci, director of beverage packaging research and development for PepsiCo Inc.
"Dave Cornell is one of the giants of the plastics recycling industry," Socci wrote in his nomination. "Through his leadership, dedication, compassion and long service to the plastics recycling industry, Dave Cornell put the 'small town' of plastics squarely on the map."
His efforts "helped to create the framework and arguments in support of plastics recycling," Socci said.
But in high school, Cornell was more interested in metallurgy and then got into biology. He got a grant from the National Science Foundation for a summer study of ecology at Denison University in Ohio.
He attended the University of Delaware, earning bachelor's degrees in math and chemical engineering in 1969. He got a job at GE Aviation near Cincinnati as a materials engineer working on performance data and failure analysis for aircraft parts, including fire-protective coatings.
While at GE, he earned a master's degree in materials science from the University of Cincinnati. He did a paper on the polymer polyoxymethylene (POM). Another project, on PET, led to a connection the professor had at Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., and its Tennessee Eastman Co. in Kingsport.
Cornell went to Eastman in 1973, becoming a PET pilot plant supervisor. He was put in charge of commercialization of the polyester business. He also held marketing and technical services positions.
PET was developed for polyester fiber. It would be several years before PET bottles came out.
Monsanto Co. created the first plastic soft drink bottle, from acrylonitrile, Lopac resin, in 1975. The Cycle-Safe bottle held 32 ounces. Cornell said there was intense competition between Coke and Pepsi to come up with large bottles, and glass was not a good option.
"What they concluded was big bottles mean more sales. If we can sell more big bottles, we move more gallons," he said.
Coke and Pepsi demanded a one-year shelf life. Acrylonitrile passed that test. But then the Food and Drug Administration banned the material for bottles.
DuPont got active in PET for soda bottles. But Cornell said DuPont planned to both sell the resin and make its own bottles, competing with customers. DuPont ended up canceling the project.
"The world starts to turn. And it's now free-for-all time," he said.
Coke and Pepsi looked at vinyl and polyethylene, but those resins did not have the barrier properties needed for carbonated beverages, Cornell said.
That left PET. The soft drink giants did some testing and found out they didn't really need a one-year shelf life.
"So over time, and this was the late 70s, the shelf-life requirement changed," he said.
PET was cheaper than glass and optically clear. Cornell said the shorter shelf life prompted soft drink makers to streamline their distribution and get to market quicker.
"So, PET forced the beverage companies to make money," he said.