Special to The Gardner News
Styrofoam slides out with the holiday surprises after keeping treasures safe in transit, a common product. Few people know of the man from Gardner, Kansas, who created the first, real Styrofoam on earth. It happened by accident, as so many wonderful things do.
Otis Ray “Mac” McIntire had been born in Gardner on August 24, 1918. The Cubs won the pennant that day, in a baseball season cut short by World War I.
McIntire was still a young man the day he invented the product that would land him in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He had graduated from the University of Kansas in chemical engineering in 1940, and he had a good job with Dow Chemical Company.
In 1941, then a chemical engineer, he was working on figuring out substitutes for rubber, a product increasingly hard to find with the advent of World War II. He wanted to make a flexible insulator.
A strange product emerged when he mixed styrene with isobutylene. Bubbles formed, and McIntire realized that he unintentionally had made a foam polystyrene 30 times lighter and more flexible than any other ever had been. Dow Chemical called this lightweight, water resistant product by a new name: Styrofoam. The product got patented in 1944.
He lived to the age of 77 with his wife, Elizabeth, and passed away of interstitial fibrosis, a lung disease. In 2008, twelve years after his passing, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his US Patent 2,450,436: extruded polystyrene, known as Styrofoam.
The trademark Styrofoam originally meant a very specific kind of building insulation board, known as blue board, effective for thermal, moisture, and vapor insulation. Expanded polystyrene was developed by the Kooper Company in 1954. Now the term has been used in common parlance to mean all kinds of packaging materials, throwaway cups, and more.
Lately, too, styrofoam has gotten some negative press because it lasts so long and so well. It can last up to 500 years in landfills, especially if it’s buried deep, away from the light of the sun.
“As far as recycling styrofoam goes, it is a bit difficult,” said Austin Swanson, recycling center attendant for Park Services in the City of Overland Park. “Stiff white packing styrofoam, like what comes with TV or computers, can be taken to ACH in Kansas City, Kansas, as long as it’s free from any water, tape, and other debris.”
ACH has been renamed Atlas Molded Products, and the company has specific recycling guidelines EPS must be #6 recyclable, clean with no dirt or debris. The primary recycling station, at 1400 N. 3rd in Kansas City, Monday through Friday, 8 to 3 pm, and can accept large quantities. The secondary facility, at 4001 Kaw Drive, has hours from 8 am to 2 pm and can accept single garbage bags. Scrap can be recycled to make more expanded polystyrene. It can be turned into other products, too. It can be combined with cement to help insulate concrete walls and can be compacted into recyclable pellets.
“Federal Express can take packing peanuts and bubble wrap, but clam shell packaging is not recyclable in this area,” Swanson said.
McIntire lived to see Styrofoam become useful throughout the world and even in space by the time of his death in 1996. His father, Ray McIntire, also was born in Gardner, and his mother, Edna Elizabeth McIntire, was a popular columnist. His parents passed away in Gardner. His brother, Bill, worked at Dow Chemical, and his sisters, Nadine Kurkowski and Martha Hodges, raised their families in Gardner. They worked for local businesses, including Farmer’s Bank and Cramer Chemical Company.
A trading card about McIntire, one of 150 designed to honor Kansas and inspire students to become interested in studying science and math, can be found at www.adastra-ks.org.
Styrofoam inventor got his start in Gardner