A Commodity Chain Analysis of the Drink-Aide™

By Carl Sigmond
April 3, 2009

I. Introduction

The Drink-Aide™ is a beverage container that enables people with physical disabilities to drink independently. A long, flexible tube is attached to the top of the bottle. This tube is surrounded by plastic fittings which allow it to remain fixed in space. The user is able to drink without having to use his/her upper extremities because the tube can be positioned close to the mouth. The Drink-Aide was invented and is manufactured at Inglis House – a nursing home and rehabilitation center for people with severe disabilities in Philadelphia, PA. (1) I have used the Drink-Aide for approximately fifteen years, and I was curious to learn about its development and production processes. In this paper, I will look at the benefits and costs of producing the Drink-Aide. Although I was unable to gain precise information about the origins of all of the components of the Drink-Aide, I will describe how plastic is made and theorize how Inglis House might assemble this product. Finally, I will discuss the impacts that the Drink-Aide has on society.

II. Background Information

As I mentioned above, the Drink-Aide was invented at Inglis House in Philadelphia. In 1990, Linda Roseman, an occupational therapist at Inglis House, noticed that one of the residents would greatly benefit if he was able to drink while out in the community. She devised a system where she attached a long straw to a piece of copper wire, thus positioning it securely in space. The resident used this new invention, and quickly other residents began asking for similar contraptions. After making these long, flexible straws for many of the residents, Roseman and the person who originally asked her for such a bottle brought the idea to the board of Inglis Foundation. They suggested that the invention was marketable and could be produced by Inglis House residents. Today, the Drink-Aide is assembled and packaged by residents. It is sold to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and individuals with disabilities. (2)

The current product consists of a 28 oz. plastic drinking container. The lid, also plastic, has a hole in the center from which the straw emerges. The tube is surrounded by plastic fittings (modular hose units) which are able to be moved and set in space at specified locations. People with limited use of their upper extremities can bring the tube close to their mouth to take a drink and push it away when they are finished. People with no upper extremity movement can have the tube positioned in such a way that they can drink whenever they please. The Drink-Aide is sold with a versatile cup holder that can be attached to a wheel chair, bed stand, or any other piece of equipment or furniture. (3) This cup holder is plastic, although it does come with two aluminum bolts to help attach it.

When I began doing research for this project, I contacted Inglis House to obtain information about the Drink-Aide. I spoke with Jennifer Holtzworth, Program Coordinator of Inglis Community Employment Services. She seemed knowledgeable on the phone and promised to send answers to my questions by email. I was unable to communicate with her again until the day my project was due. (Inglis House has had people attempt to copy their product, so they are wary of providing information to the public. Ms. Holtzworth answered my questions only after she verified that I was not a competitor.) (2)

III. The Plastics

Since I was not able to base any of my research off information from Inglis House, I needed to go down a different path. So I looked on the Drink-Aide and saw that the plastic fittings which surround the tube are made by Lockwood Products, Inc. The plastic container is made of high density polyethylene. Since I order the tubing separately – the tube that the Drink-Aide comes with is too firm for my mouth – I was able to contact that manufacturer directly. In the following sections, I will describe the different types of plastic and the methods by which the plastics become components of the Drink-Aide.

1. Acetal Copolymer

The plastic fittings that support the tube of the Drink-Aide are made by Lockwood Products, Inc., a company that is based in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The fittings are called Loc-Line modular hose systems and fit together to form a “gooseneck” structure. (4) When I contacted Lockwood Products, they were helpful but did not tell me the details of the production processes. The bookkeeper at Lockwood, David Bowles, told me that the fittings are injection molded which means that air is used to blow hot plastic into form. Lockwood Products sells Loc-Line systems to industrial distributors and manufacturers. I theorize that Inglis House buys Loc-Line fittings from one of these distributors. (5)

I also learned where Lockwood Products obtains its plastic and what the plastic is. The name of the plastic is acetal copolymer, and it is manufactured by Ticona. (5) I spoke with Dan Palangio in Technology and Services / Technical Support at Ticona. He emailed me the design manual of Celcon – the brand name for acetal copolymer. (6) The manual contains the chemical makeup of Celcon as well as specifications of usage, but it does not give information about the materials that are necessary to produce the plastic. (7) After looking at the manual, I emailed Mr. Palangio to see if I could find out where Celcon is produced and what it is made of. John Stieha, a Celcon/Hostaform Product Specialist at Ticona, emailed me back and told me that Celcon “is produced starting with methanol as a feedstock. The methanol can be sourced by various methods, but a very common one is primarily natural gas.” Mr. Stieha wrote that Celcon is produced in Bishop, Texas and Kelsterbach, Germany. The company is based in Florence, Kentucky. (8)

2. Polyvinyl Chloride

As I mentioned above, I do not use the tube that comes with the Drink-Aide, because the tube that it comes with is too firm. Instead, I order flexible tubing from Nalgene Labware – a laboratory equipment supplier based in Rochester, NY. When I contacted Nalgene, I found out that my tubing is made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). I was told that Nalgene does not manufacture the tubing; they buy it from another company, package and market it. When I asked where they obtain their tubing from, they told me that I would need to engage in a confidentially agreement. (9) I sent an email request to the person who is in charge of handling such requests at the company, but my teacher here at Woolman told me not to pursue it.

PVC is one of the most common types of plastics, and it is one of the most harmful. The production of PVC produces dioxins. Studies have shown that humans can develop cancer if dioxins are in their bodies. (10) PVC also emits harmful chemicals during use and disposal. It is difficult to recycle and much of it ends up in landfills. (11)

3. High Density Polyethylene

The letters “HDPE” are on the bottom of the Drink-Aide container. HDPE stands for high density polyethylene. Since Inglis House would not give me the names of its vendors, I was unable to determine where the bottle comes from. I looked on the web, and I found out that HDPE is a high resistant plastic that is ideal for injection molds. (12)

IV. Information from Inglis House

On the day that this project was due, I finally was able to speak with Jennifer Holtzworth at Inglis House. She confirmed what I had previously thought: Inglis House orders components from different vendors, and residents of Inglis House assemble the Drink-Aides. She was able to tell me that the tube comes from companies in Philadelphia and New York, and the bottle comes from Michigan. I failed to ask where the modular fittings that support the tube come from, but I did learn that Inglis House residents use specialized tools to put the fittings together. (2)

It is not a coincidence that all of the companies that supply Inglis House with Drink-Aide components are based in the United States. Ms. Holtzworth told me that it was important to her organization that it support U.S. labor. She said that the company that was making their bottles went out of business. It has been difficult to find bottles that meet their specifications that are also made in the U.S. Inglis House has been forced to buy one of the components from China. In addition to supporting U.S. labor, Inglis House is proud that it is providing jobs to people with disabilities. (2)

V. Conclusion

Acetal copolymer, polyvinyl chloride, and high density polyethylene are abstract chemical names. The plastics of which the names apply make up my Drink-Aide – a commodity that I use everyday. The Drink-Aide enables me and many other people to drink independently. It also creates jobs and revenue for Inglis House and its residents. Having completed this commodity chain analysis has taught me a major lesson: it is very difficult to trace components of a product backward on the path of distribution.

In my opinion, this unwillingness to divulge information is purposeful. Obviously, companies do not want to disclose information that is proprietary or that may help competitors. Another reason that manufacturers are unwilling to provide information to consumers maybe that they know that their products contain toxic chemicals which can cause harm to humans and to the environment. Still another factor in this equation is that plastics cannot be manufactured indefinitely in their present form.

I praise Inglis House for providing jobs to people with disabilities and for attempting to buy products that are manufactured in the U.S. These practices stimulate the U.S. economy and are better for the environment. I am also grateful that Inglis House has the capacity to produce and market this product that is so helpful to people with disabilities. I know that the production processes of the plastics in the Drink-Aide depend on the availability of natural gas and that their production is facilitating the depletion of un-renewable resources, but, on the whole, I am glad that Drink-Aides are available for purchase.

References

1. Roseman, Linda: “Ginger Ale, Velcro and a Dream: A COTA Becomes an Inventor,” Drink-Aide, March 2, 2000, <www.drink-aide.com>, March 25, 2009.

2. Holtzworth, Jennifer: Telephone Interview, April 3, 2009.

3. “Drink-Aide: Home Page,” <www.drink-aide.com>, March 25, 2009.

4. “Loc-Line – Modular & Adjustable Coolant Hose System,” Locwood Products, Inc., <www.loc-line.com>, March 28, 2009.

5. Bowles, David: Telephone Interview, April 2, 2009.

6. Palangio, Dan: “Celcon/C. Signal,” April 2, 2009.

7. “Designing with Celcon,” Ticona.

8. Stieha, John: “FW: Celcon/C. Signal,” Email to the author, April 3, 2009.

9. Nalgene Labware Technical Support, Telephone Interview, April 2, 2009.

10. “Dioxins,” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health,.<www.niehs.nih.gov>, March 30, 2009.

11. “Polyvinyl Chloride,” Greenpeace, <www.greanepeace.org>, March 29, 2009.

12. “High Density Polyethylene Sheets,” New Process Fibre Co., <www.newprocess.com>, March 27, 2009.