10 Durable Facts About Duct Tape

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iStock

Duct tape can be found in the tool box of any self-respecting handyman, but the versatile product's potential extends far beyond home repairs. From its origins in the military to its popularity with NASA, here are some surprising facts about the reliable adhesive.

1. IT WAS INVENTED TO MEET A MILITARY NEED.

Before the invention of duct tape, packages of ammunition that were sent to the military were sealed with wax to keep their contents waterproof. The cardboard flaps were held shut with a strip of paper tape with a tab hanging loose that would allow soldiers to rip open the boxes in a hurry. Because this type of tape wasn’t very strong, the tabs would often tear off in their hands and leave soldiers struggling to free their ammunition in the heat of battle. 

Hoping to solve the problem, Vesta Stoudt, a mother of two Navy sailors and a worker at the Green River Ordnance Plant in Illinois, wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt with an idea: 

"I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same … I have two sons out there some where, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet. You have sons in the service also.  We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved."

Roosevelt passed along the letter to the War Production Board in Washington, D.C., who contacted Johnson & Johnson to develop the product. The result was a strong, waterproof tape that soldiers could still tear apart with their hands in a pinch.

2. THE NAME "DUCK TAPE" CAME FIRST.

Since its origins, the tape has consisted of three major components: a bottom layer of glue, mesh fabric, and a polyethylene plastic coating on top to keep it water-resistant. According to Johnson & Johnson, soldiers nicknamed the material "duck tape" in reference to its ability to repel moisture "like water off a duck’s back."

3. IT OWES ITS STICKINESS TO PHYSICS.

While many adhesives, like Elmer’s glue, need to undergo a physical change in order to stick to something, duct tape works a little differently. Its stickiness is created by a pressure-sensitive adhesive, or PSA, which is a soft polymer blend that employs van der Waals forces to attract two surfaces. These intermolecular forces are weak on their own, but with enough of them, they are capable of supporting very heavy loads (this is the same principle that allows geckos to stick to walls).

"Other adhesives, like glues and epoxies, are liquid when you apply them, but they react chemically and harden," Costantino Creton, a materials scientist at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, told Chemical and Engineering News. "PSAs have no chemical reaction. They don't change at all. They are in the solid state when you apply them, and they stick in their solid state." This makes duct tape the perfect option if you’re looking for a super strong adhesive that's also removable.

4. YOU CAN’T USE IT IN DUCTS.

Following World War II, duct tape began to catch on in the U.S. as a handy tool for home construction. People were using it to hold metal air ducts together, so the company rebranded the product as "duct tape" and updated it with a matching silver color made from powdered aluminum.

Today, its namesake usage is one of the few things that duct tape isn’t recommended for. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted tests in 1998 to see how well different types of tape performed at sealing ducts, and, compared to the other products, duct tape was the clear loser. "Of all the things we tested, only duct tape failed. It failed reliably and often quite catastrophically," Max Sherman, one of the researchers, told Berkeley Lab Research News. Using duct tape on actual ductwork is now considered a code violation in many buildings.

5. DUCT TAPE HELPED SAVE APOLLO 13. 

Following an explosion aboard the ship’s service module, the three members of the Apollo 13 crew transferred to a lunar module designed to hold two people for 36 hours. They had to find a way to last more than twice that long, and the biggest threat to their survival was the carbon dioxide being created by their own bodies. While they had plenty of square carbon dioxide filters on board, they were incompatible with the lunar module’s round holes. Engineers at NASA devised a solution that involved using cardboard, plastic bags, space suit components, and duct tape that was kept on board to create an adapter that would filter out carbon dioxide. This hack ultimately saved the astronauts’ lives.

This wasn’t the only time duct tape proved to be useful in outer space. The tape has been stowed on board every NASA mission since the early Gemini era. Some of its handy applications include making emergency rover repairs, fixing leaky pipes, and keeping items secure in zero gravity.

6. IT HAS BEEN USED TO PREVENT INFECTION ...

Hospital-acquired infections account for 99,000 preventable deaths in the U.S. each year. In order to safely fight infection while saving doctors time and effort, the Trinity Medical Center system of hospitals in the Midwest came up with a rather simple solution. They used duct tape to mark 3-foot-square “safe zones” extending from the doorway into a patient's room. This allowed physicians to casually converse with their patients without having to change into full sterile gear every time they wanted to check in. Research shows that the duct tape idea saved the hospital system $110,000 a year and 2700 hours of staff time.

7. … AND A WHOLE LOT MORE.

Mythbusters has devoted three entire episodes to exploring some of duct tape’s most extreme applications. The team was able to successfully use duct tape to patch a damaged airplane fuselage, construct a functioning cannon, build a usable bridge, and lift a 5000-pound car. Of the 18 myths they tested, only one was busted (turns out you can’t use duct tape to barricade a car driving at 60 mph).

8. THERE’S AN ANNUAL DUCT TAPE FESTIVAL.

Since 2005, Avon, Ohio has hosted an annual duct tape festival dedicated to celebrating "duct tape, its enthusiasts, and its wacky and fun uses." The event features duct tape sculptures, a duct tape fashion show, and a parade of giant floats constructed using duct tape. 

9. THERE’S DUCT TAPE TO SUIT EVERY NEED.

Specialty varieties of the product include outdoor duct tape, double-sided duct tape, glow-in-the-dark duct tape, and nuclear-grade duct tape (the latter is certified for use in nuclear power plants).

10. WEARING DUCT TAPE TO PROM COULD EARN YOU A SCHOLARSHIP.

Duck brand duct tape offers a rather unusual scholarship to high schoolers who are willing to get creative with their product. Every prom season, they call upon students to design and create their own suits and dresses for the big day using duct tape. The winning couple of the "Stuck at Prom" competition is awarded a $10,000 scholarship each along with an additional $5000 for their high school.

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
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Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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