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Facts about Plastics that You should Know

Updated on December 8, 2016

The word plastic is derived from the Greek word Plastikos, meaning to mold or form. Plastic was first developed as a replacement for ivory in the 1860s. Since then plastic has become an essential part of all manufacturing industries.

Manufacturing industries use plastic in many areas of application because it is easy to bend and mold into different shapes.

Plastics are made from petrochemicals that are derived from fossil fuels such coal, crude oil and natural gas.

What are plastics?

Plastics are made of long chains of polymers. Polymers are made of single units of repeating monomers. The monomers are combined in different ways to produce different types of plastics.

In order to get a clear picture about plastics, it is important to understand the following terms -

Monomer - Monomer is the basic unit of a chemical substance that can be combined in different ways to form a more complex substance. The term mono means one.

Polymers - Polymers are long chains of monomers connected in different ways to form a complex substance. Poly means many.

Hydrocarbons - Hydrocarbons are organic compounds that can be found in crude oil and natural gas. They are made only of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

What is plastic?

Plastic is a material that is made of long chains of polymers. (Polymers are repeating units of monomers.) During the manufacture of plastics, monomers are combined in different ways to produce different types of plastics.

Polymers in plastics are made of long chains of hydrocarbon molecules. The carbon atoms present in the hydrocarbon molecules join to form the framework of the hydrocarbon molecule, and the hydrogen atoms act as links to other carbon atoms forming a continuous chain.

The chain of hydrocarbon molecules can be a single straight chain or branch off in different directions to form a more complex chain.

Polyethylene is an example of thermoplastic that is used in most industrial and commercial applications. Thermoplastic is a type of plastic that can be melted into a liquid and remolded as it cools down to become a solid.

The diagram below is an example of a polyethylene plastic -

Zig-Zag Structure of Polyethylene
Zig-Zag Structure of Polyethylene | Source

Thermoplastics

Thermoplastics are polymers that can be melted and recast into different shapes. They can be melted and recast several times without losing much of their original properties

Examples of Thermoplastics

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic that is used to manufacture sports equipment, Lego Blocks, and automobile parts.

Polycarbonate is a type of thermoplastic used to make Compact Discs, beverage bottles, food storage containers, eyeglass lenses, etc.

Polyethylene is another thermoplastic that is used to make shampoo bottles, plastic grocery bags, and bullet proof vests. Thermoplastics can be recycled and reused.

Products Made From Thermoplastics
Products Made From Thermoplastics | Source

Thermosets

Thermosets are also known as thermosetting plastics. Thye are synthetic materials that can form a three-dimensional network when chemically treated.

The first thermoset plastic called Bakelite was developed by Dr. Leo Baekeland in 1909. The advantage with thermoset plastics is that they retain their shape and properties at high temperatures.

The ability to retain the shape and original properties even at high temperatures make thermosets ideal to make things that are solid and durable.

Thermosets are used in the manufacture of electronic chips, fiber-reinforced composites, polymeric coatings. Thermosets cannot be recycled, remolded or reshaped.

Plastic Products Made from Thermoset Plastics
Plastic Products Made from Thermoset Plastics | Source
Gloves and Blood Bags made from PVC
Gloves and Blood Bags made from PVC | Source

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Commercial use of PVC was first started by Waldo Semon in the 1920s while trying to create a synthetic replacement for natural rubber.


PVC plastics are thermoplastics that are made of 57% chlorine and 43% carbon. The production of PVCs is less dependent on fossil fuels because the chlorine used to make PVC is derived from industrial grade salt and the carbon is derived from oil or gas.

PVC plastics are durable, light, strong, fire resistant with low permeability and high insulation properties. PVCs are used in the manufacture of building materials such as window and door frames, floor and wall coverings, roofing sheets, tunnel linings, swimming pools and reservoirs.

PVC is also used for the following -

  • Pipings for water and sewerage transport and fittings and ducts for power and telecommunications.
  • Coatings for tarpaulins, rainwear and corrugated metal sheets.
  • Insulation and sheathing for low voltage power supplies, telecommunications, appliances and automotive applications.
  • Packaging for pharmaceuticals, food and confectionery, water and fruit juices, labels and presentation trays.
  • Manufacture of medical products such as blood bags, transfusion tubes and surgical gloves.
  • Manufacture of garden hoses, footwear, inflatable pools and tents.

Commercial use of PVC first started by Waldo Semon in the 1920s while trying to create a synthetic replacement for natural rubber.

PVC plastics are thermoplastics that are made of 57 % chlorine and 43% carbon. The production of PVCs is less dependent on fossil fuels because the chlorine used to make PVC is derived from industrial grade salt and the carbon is derived from oil or gas.

Polyurethane spray foam being applied for insulation
Polyurethane spray foam being applied for insulation | Source

Polyurethane

Polyurethane was discovered in 1930 by Professor Dr.Otto Bayer. Polyurethane is a durable, flexible and a resilient material that is manufactured from petrochemicals. Dr.Otto Bayer is known as the Father of the polyurethane industry.

Polyurethane is manufactured by combining two monomers – diisocyanate and diol or polyol through a chemical reaction. Polyurethane can be in the form of a liquid, foam or solid depending upon the monomers that are used to produce polyurethane.

Polyurethane is highly flexible, resistant to abrasion and high impact, can withstand wear and tear, resistant to water, oil and grease. It is highly resilient and is a good conductor of electricity. Polyurethane bonds well with plastics, metals and wood.

Even though polyurethane is made from fossil fuel, it helps to preserve the natural resources of the planet in the following ways -

  • Coating a product with polyurethane extends the life of the product thereby reducing the need to produce new products frequently
  • Polyurethane helps to insulate buildings. Insulation with polyurethane helps to decrease the consumption of gas, oil and electricity
  • Polyurethane foams used tin refrigerators help to preserve food for a longer time

Polyurethane can be recycled chemically by breaking them down into monomers and making new polyurethane or mechanically by using the polyurethane in its polymer form. It also helps to recycle other materials such as rubber and wood.

Polyurethane is made of petrochemicals and they should be recycled to save valuable resources and energy.

PET bottles being recycled
PET bottles being recycled | Source

Polyethylene terephthalate

PET is a short form for Polyethylene terephthalate. PET plastics were first synthesized by Dupont Chemists while they were conducting a research to make new textile fibers, but the actual technology for the manufacture of these textiles was developed by Imperial Chemical Industries.

PET plastics are durable, can withstand high pressure and do not burst open when falling. It has very good barrier properties and helps to preserve the fizz in aerated drinks. PET products can be recycled and reused.

PET plastics are used in the manufacture of the following -

  1. Bottles for beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, mineral waters, carbonated drinks
  2. Bottles for cooking and salad oils, sauces, and dressings
  3. Wide mouthed jars and tubs for jam, preserves, fruits and dried foods
  4. Trays for pre-cooked meals that can be reheated and other PET products

PET products are made from crude oil derivatives and must be recycled to save earth's resources.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics can be bio-based, biodegradable or both. The term bioplastic refers to plastics that meet one or both of the following two conditions-

  1. Bioplastics must be partially derived from renewable (plant-based) resources
  2. Bioplastics can be degraded into water and carbon dioxide by naturally occurring microorganisms present in the environment. During this process, a little biomass is created

Conventional plastics do not meet any of the conditions mentioned above.

Examples of Bioplastics

Polylactic acid (PLA), PolyCaproLactance (PLC), polyesteramide, PolyHydroxyButyrate-covalerate (PHBV) made from plants such as canola, soybean, corn, and potatoes. Bioplastics can also be made from wastes of the food industry.

The use of renewable resources to produce plastic helps to save fossil fuel and reduces the emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Bioplastics can be classified into two different types of plastics - bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics.

Bio-Based Plastics

Bio-based products are manufactured partly from biomass. The very first bio-based plastic was Polyhydroxybutyrate (PBH), was discovered in 1926 by Maurice Lemoigne, a French researcher.

Maurice Lemoigne discovered bio-based plastic while working with the bacterium Bacillus megaterium. At first his discovery was not acknowledged by the world but with the recent fossil fuel crisis bio-based plastics have become an important topic for further research.

Bio-based plastics are extensively used in packaging industries.

Examples of biomass

Dead trees branches and leaves, tree stumps, branches and leaves from yard clippings, wood chips. Industrial biomass is obtained from plants such as Miscanthus, Switch Grass, Hemp, Corn, Sugarcane, Bamboo and trees such as Eucalyptus and Palm.

Biodegradble Plastics

Biodegradable plastics are environment-friendly plastics that can be broken down by microbes such as bacteria and fungi present in the environment.

According to the Biodegradable Plastic Institute, a biodegradable material is a material that breaks down under the right conditions by the microbes in the environment and use the broken down materials as a food source.

Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily biobased

Plastics made from fossil fuels alone can be made biodegradable by adding chemical additives during the process of manufacturing the plastics thereby making the plastic biodegradable and eco-friendly.

A biodegradable product can have non-biodegradable ingredients that do not decompose naturally or have materials that can be recycled by curbside recycling programs.

Biodegradable plastics should not be thrown out into the environment because they take a long time to decompose in landfills due to lack of oxygen, humidity, and low temperatures.

Biodegradable plastics should be recycled through curbside recycle programs. Recycling programs take the collected biodegradable plastics to huge composting facilities where they decompose in a short time under controlled environments.

Biodegradable plastics are used for

  1. Food packaging – packaging that can be composted along with its contents when it has passed the expiry date
  2. Production of agricultural plastic sheeting that can be plowed into biodegradable mulch and seed films
  3. Medical- absorbable sutures, micro-devices containing medicine which break down inside the body
  4. Disposable plates, spoons, cups, forks

Cellophane is a 100% biodegradable material made from plants and tree cellulose. The very first time, cellophane was made by the French scientist in 1920.

Plastics and the Environment

Plastics have become a part of our everyday life. We use many items made of different types of plastics without fully realizing the impact they have on the environment.

Even though plastics have many uses they have become a threat to the environment. The best solution would be to cut down on the use of plastics. Instead of recycling them it is better to avoid the use of plastic items or reuse the ones that we already have.

References

http://quatr.us/chemistry/plastic/

http://www.explainthatstuff.com/plastics.html

http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/conflicts-in-chemistry/the-case-of-plastics/all-science-of-plastics.aspx

http://www.innovateus.net/science/what-monomer

http://www.futurenergia.org/ww/en/pub/futurenergia/chats/bio_plastics.htm

http://www.plasticseurope.org/what-is-plastic/types-of-plastics-11148/thermosets.aspx

http://en.european-bioplastics.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/fs/Bioplastics_eng.pdf

Recycling Plastics

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    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 11 months ago from Dubai

      FlourishAnyway it is great that your area has started recycling all plastics, it will help save the environment around us and yes it would be great if we have a deposit system. It is so thoughtful of you to pick up litter that other people carelessly discard, wish they would clean up their act. Thank you for your visit and comment.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 11 months ago from USA

      My area has finally started recycling all plastics (1-7) instead of just code 1 & 2 plastics. Previously, it was cost prohibitive to recycle the 3-7 because it had to be trucked several states away and actually was a losing venture financially. I pick up up a lot of other people's discarded litter while walking to recycle it. Makes me so frustrated that people cannot do the right thing. I sure wish we had a deposit system like they did with glass bottles in the old days!

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 11 months ago from Dubai

      MartieCoetser thank you. I really wonder how life was before plastic was invented.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 11 months ago from South Africa

      Vellur, this is a VERY interesting hub about plastic. Most of the things we use today are one or another form of plastic. Although I remember life-before-plastic, I can now hardly imagine life-after-plastic.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 14 months ago from Dubai

      vespawolf am happy that you came to know about the different types of plastics through this hub. It is great that they recycle plastic in Peru, this helps to save the environment.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 14 months ago from Peru, South America

      Until reading this article, I knew nothing about different types of plastic. I thought plastic was plastic. I have read how difficult it is for plastic to disintegrate, often hundreds of years. Here in Peru, plastic containers are reused so there isn't so much waste.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 15 months ago from Dubai

      AudreyHowitt thank you.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 15 months ago from California

      Just an excellent and well balanced article!

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 22 months ago from Dubai

      aviannovice, I totally agree that we have gone overboard with our plastic creations. Animals do get killed by eating plastic and the ocean is full of it. Recycling does help but only to a certain extent. I have tried to showcase the good and the bad in this article. Thank you for sharing your views with us.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 22 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      There are many good uses for plastics, but we have gone overboard a little in our creations. Sadly, there is a blob in the ocean that just sits there and collects more plastics. The Layman Albatross on Midway Island is having a hard time with this substance, as the chicks eat it, without knowing any better, and it slowly kills them, by blocking food passage. Even though plastics were created two centuries ago to replace ivory, it created a lot of problem for elephants, anyway.

      This is a very good piece that shows a lot of structural makeup and the fact that plastic is excellent in plumbing usage. It has helped keep down the cost of gasoline with its usage in cars, too. Fortunately, much of this material can be recycled, so this helps somewhat with what appears in the landfill.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 22 months ago from Dubai

      rajan jolly thank you for reading and leaving a valuable comment. It is necessary to curb the use of plastic as much as we can and save up on fossil fuel that is not going to last forever. Thank you for the vote up and share.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 22 months ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      A very detailed and well written informative hub. Shows how we dependent we are on some form of plastic in our everyday life.

      But most of all, it is necessary to curb their use, to not only prevent environmental pollution from the non biodegradable forms but to also conserve our fossil fuels which are irreplaceable.

      Voted up and shared.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 23 months ago from Dubai

      teaches12345 yes, product packaging is mostly in plastic that we cannot avoid. Thank you for your visit.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 23 months ago

      This is a great article on plastic and why we should try to avoid using it. We have switched to using glass dishes in our home for this reason. It is something we are trying to avoid buying but product packaging is almost always wrapped in it.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 23 months ago from Dubai

      ChitrangadaSharan thank you and yes it is difficult to do away with plastics but we must be careful how we use and dispose of them.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 23 months ago from New Delhi, India

      This is an excellent hub about plastics and so informative ! You covered the details at such a great length and I am much informed about the use of plastics now. Although it is difficult to do away with plastics nowadays but we must be careful about the type we are using and minimise it's use as much as is possible.

      Thank you for this useful and well researched hub!

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 23 months ago from Dubai

      ladyguitarpicker plastic is harmful and pollutes the environment. It is great that you pick up the plastic bottles from the beach.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 23 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      I think I found some interesting information about plastic. I get tired of picking up plastic bottles on the beach. I like plastic,but it can be very harmful.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 24 months ago from Dubai

      FlourishAnyway thank you.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 24 months ago from USA

      Excellent and very thorough educational hub on plastics. I'm excited about the move to biodegradable plastics and glad to see more recycling. Sharing.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      always exploring thank you, and yes people should be more careful about how they dispose of plastics.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Interesting and educational hub. What would we do without plastics? I guess we would do ok. Plastics in our Wabash river are killing all kinds of critters. If people would be more careful and not throw plastic, bottles and you name it into our water would help a lot. Thank you for a very useful hub.

    • Vellur profile image
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      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      AliciaC thank you, identifying types of plastics helps to recycle them.

      DDE thank you for your visit and share.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I did not think much of plastics. You have enlightened me in a well-informed hub. A topic everyone should read. Thank you for this hub. TWEETED!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing so many details about plastic, Vellur. The different types of plastic are so common today. It's important that people know about them.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      BlossomSB yes it is horrendous to see the amount of plastic items that wash up on the beaches. Thank you for stopping by.

      Glenn Stok, recycling is relatively new and yes many communities do not recycle. Plastic is getting into our system in many ways, we have to make the right choices and recycle plastic or reduce the usage of plastic. Thank you for your visit.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Very educational hub on plastics. I didn't know that some forms of plastics go back almost 100 years.

      Recycling is such a new thing, and there are still many communities that don't recycle plastic. I read recently that humans have plastic in our blood because we get it through the foods we eat and drink that are stored in plastic containers.

      We also get it in our system by eating fish. Fish think the prices of plastic they find in the ocean is plankton and they eat it. Then we eat the fish. There is a lot of plastic in the Pacific Ocean since there are a lot of people who don't care, and they just throw it out. There's enough there to make an island.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Although we use plastic in so many areas of our life, I'm always a bit dubious as to whether it is good for us, and it's certainly not good for the environment. Especially in third world countries, the amount of plastic items that wash up on the beaches is horrendous, and it's not so good in our own countries, either, except that we clean it up better. Thanks for an interesting article.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      Frank Atanacio thank you and wishing you a Happy Prosperous New Year.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 2 years ago from Shelton

      First Happy New Year.. secondly.. thanks so much for this chemistry, lesson 101.. actually really never understood the fabric of plastic.. but now I feel you pointed me into the right direction.. thanks my friend

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      Reynold Jay thank you.

      Ercidierker thank you.

      Audrey (vocalcoach) thank you for your visit and share.

      billybuc yes it is difficult to eliminate plastics totally but we can try to cut down on the use of plastic items.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      We have tried to eliminate plastics from our personal lives but truthfully, in today's world, it is practically impossible to do so. We have decided the best we can do it be mindful and try to lessen the use. Great information here, my friend.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 2 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      You've brought a whole new meaning to the word 'informative' my friend. So interesting! You've managed to cover it all. I'm particular about the plastics I use so thank you for teaching me more about this subject. Sharing.

      Audrey

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      cool stuff. We are cutting back even further. Great to know the ins and outs, thank you much.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 2 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Holy moly, Batman--This is everything one could ever hope to know. I am convinced--no earting and drinking from plastic cups. Well done.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      Jackie Lynnley thank you for your visit. Plastics are useful and harmful at the same time. As you say, it is better to avoid eating and drinking from plastics. Thank you for the share too.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Wow; never read so much about plastic. You covered it well!

      My dad always had suspicions of plastic and would never eat or drink from it. Strange how right on he may have been especially for so long ago as we learn today of only using certain grades.

      Hard to live without it though, it certainly has been a good thing in plumbing and probably dozens more I am not thinking of. I choose to though to not eat or drink from it, too.

      Sharing.