National Treasure #147: Harry Wasylyk

He gets one of of those really short Wikipedia entries: Harry Wasylyk, Winnipeg inventor, sort of, of the plastic garbage bag. Other sources are a little more expansive.

Enter Winnipeg inventor Harry Wasylyk who, after the Second World War, began experimenting with a new material called polyethylene. Harry made his first plastic bags in his kitchen and supplied them to the Winnipeg General Hospital to line their garbage cans. He quickly moved his kitchen production to a plant. – Library and Archives Canada

I say Harry was “sort of” the inventor not because there’s any doubt about what he did, but because two other people seem to have come up with the same idea at about the same time.

Around the same time, Larry Hanson, an employee at Lindsay, Ontario’s Union Carbide plant began to make garbage bags to use around the plant. Union Carbide knew a great idea when it saw one. The company bought Wasylyk’s business and began producing the garbage bags from the leftover polyethylene resin piling up at its Montr√©al plant. Another Canadian, Frank Plomp of Toronto was also working on the same idea in the 1950s. He sold his garbage bags to hospitals and offices. Three inventors working on the same idea at roughly the same idea, and all of them Canadian!

Clearly an idea whose time had come. You just can’t keep a good environmental hazard down.


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4 Responses to National Treasure #147: Harry Wasylyk

  1. Ian Hepher says:

    True. A mixed bag…er, blessing. Actually, there would be not too much wrong with plastic bags if we didn’t treat them like they were a limitless resource, and reused every one until it wore out rather than tossing them in the garbage. You can’t blame the inventor, though…

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – I’d sure rather live in a world where plastic was restricted to essential uses like IV tubing, but I say that without knowing much about all the other beneficial uses – just seeing the mess plastic waste creates.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    A hundred years from now (if we humans survive that long) people will look back at our use of petroleum and ask, “How could you waste it by BURNING it?” Petroleum has far more use as plastics — but not all plastics are equal. I’d say that one of the less-equal uses of plastics is in plastic shopping bags; there are so many other products that shopping bags could be made of, whereas plastics are increasingly important in shaping, say, prosthetics, or tool, or kitchen utensils, or even car parts (making things lighter so that we don’t burn as much fossil fuels).
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Yes, it’s an unnecessary step from plastic trash bags for medical waste to plastic shopping bags. What disturbs me about all plastics is their propensity to degrade into microscopic bits of plastic that then spread through the ecosystem – they don’t truly degrade at all in the way that natural products do.

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