Owens-Illinois Inc., one of the largest glass bottle manufacturers in the world, originally came out of the famous Glass Capital of the World—Toledo, Ohio—in 1903. With its success came expansion, and the company opened a plant in Waco, Texas, on February 22, 1944. The Waco plant would become a significant contributor to the Waco economy and several beverage companies across the nation.
Owens-Illinois Inc. began as the Owens Bottle Machine Company. Michael J. Owens, after whom the company was named, had entered the glass industry at the ripe age of ten. At the time, all glass bottles were made by skilled glassblowers with the help of young boys shoveling coal, moving the molds, and helping with other tasks. As Owens grew up, he decided there had to be a better way to make glass bottles. In partnership with Edward Libbey of Libbey Glass Company and engineer William E. Bock, Owens set out to design an automated bottle-making machine in 1898. Five years and half a million dollars later, the machine was perfected and the Owens Bottle Machine Company was born. The machine could produce 13,000 bottles per day at 10 to 12 cents per bottle, as opposed to 3,500 bottles per day at $1.80 per bottle when blown by hand. By 1919, the company was known as the Owens Bottle Company, and a decade later it merged with Illinois Glass Company to become the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. The merger took place because Owens’s patents were about to expire and he stood to lose a great deal of money, so he acquired a fully functional glass company to continue his profits and to expand his horizons. Owens had revolutionized the glass bottle industry, and his business would expand to over seventy plants across the country.
Due to Waco’s ready market, transportation facilities on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, availability of raw materials, and natural gas reserves, Owens-Illinois selected the Central Texas city as the location for its twentieth plant. The company purchased the land near the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1940, with the plant opening four years later. It started with only one furnace and four molding machines operating twenty-four hours a day, and with three hundred employees from the Waco community producing about one hundred tons of glassware each day. The plant proved to be instrumental in manufacturing bottles and containers for the Allied war effort during the final year of World War II. After the war, it supplied glass bottles, jars, and jugs for food, proprietary medicine, and beverages to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana.
The company steadily expanded the Waco plant, constructing new furnaces and employing 725 people by its tenth anniversary in 1954. In honor of its first decade the plant also opened a corrugated box division as a way to manufacture the boxes needed to transport their glassware. That same year the company changed its name to Owens-Illinois Inc. Two years later, the Waco plant established an Owens-Illinois scholarship at Baylor University. The company provided a grant in the amount of tuition and books for one student each year, and the scholarship ran for seven years. Only men could apply, and the scholarship included a summer job at the Waco location.
The 1960s brought more advancements for the Waco plant. In 1961, the plant began to produce glass cans, or “Handys” as they called them. These were designed to be more convenient for transportation and storage in the fridge, and they did not carry a deposit on the bottle. The new cans were also designed to increase sales, as major bleach companies had switched to plastic containers in 1961 and delivered a hit to the Waco plant’s profits, resulting in the layoff of 21 percent of the employees. Yet the biggest change came in 1964 with the invention of Spectra Glas, the country’s first colored glass. Spectra Glas was a breakthrough for light-sensitive products like beer, as this new green glass protected the product from harmful light. The Waco plant was the first Owens-Illinois plant to manufacture Spectra Glas, and its customers, such as Lone Star Beer, profited immensely from the change.
Owens-Illinois saw many ups and downs in the next few decades. Waco employees had always been part of the Glass Bottle Blowers Association and other unions, and after a nationwide strike in 1968 the Waco plant saw continued struggles for better working conditions. The company also battled with the Texas Air Control Board over its environmental impact in the early 1970s. On top of strikes and legal problems throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Owens-Illinois also saw great fluctuations in employment due to the rise in plastic packaging. The Waco plant laid off about 35 percent of their employees seasonally, struggling to keep the plant running at full capacity for even part of the year. In an effort to combat the problem, the plant launched a recycling and glass awareness program to try and reduce the dominance of plastic and aluminum cans. The plant set up an Old West-themed multi-material recycling center in 1983, with different sections decorated as different buildings like a saloon and a livery stable. People could come enjoy the sites and also get paid for the materials they brought to recycle. Owens-Illinois hoped that by once again paying people for returning glass, that more people would purchase glass to begin with. This in part helped revive the Waco plant, along with new customers they picked up in the 1980s such as Gerber, Miller, Dr Pepper, and Coca-Cola. By 1987, Owens-Illinois was purchased by Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., a global investment firm, with operations continuing in Waco. The company would not go public again until 1991.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the Owens-Illinois plant only employed about 450 workers, some 500 less than at its height in the 1970s. This was again due to the steady increase in plastic packaging across the country. The city of Waco worked hard to keep the plant running and to preserve as many jobs as possible, in 2010 even giving the plant a $2,500 sales tax reimbursement for every employee kept on the payroll. In 2012, the company announced an $8 million upgrade to the Waco plant to make it more environmentally friendly and up to date. The plant’s biggest customers are still beverage companies, especially a variety of beer labels.
Though plastic bottles appeared to have won the day for decades, Owens-Illinois remains the largest glass manufacturer in the world, and over half of all glass containers made in the world today are produced by Owens-Illinois. With rising concerns over plastic pollution, the Waco plant and Owens-Illinois as a whole may enjoy greater success in the coming years.