Plastics in Everyday Life
In the past 60 years, plastics have developed an amazing presence in our lives. In fact, if there were no plastics, you would be in for quite a shock. In just a few short decades, consumers have come to consider the extraordinary properties of plastics as nothing out of the ordinary. Plastics’ popularity and wide usage can be attributed to one basic fact: because of their range of properties and design technologies, plastics offer consumer benefits unsurpassed by other materials.
There are about 45 basic families of plastics, and each of these can be made with hundreds of variations. An example is the polyethylene family. Polyethylene is the material from which most plastic household packaging is made. This versatile plastic comes in nearly 1,000 different grades!
By controlling factors such as melt indices, molecular weights, molecular weight distributions, densities, etc., plastics can be created with specific properties, each designed for a special use. For instance, polyethylene can be used to produce:
- Plastic film that stretches (and film that doesn’t stretch);
- Plastic film that is transparent (and film that is opaque);
- Pipe that carries drinking water and tanks that hold gasoline;
- Bottles that hold liquids ranging from milk to motor oil, juices and shampoos.
And this is just ONE of the 45 basic families of different plastics. Families can be combined to produce new materials with additional properties. Mix in additives and reinforcements through a technique called compounding, and you can get even more advantages: practically any color without painting; sections as stiff as steel at less than half the weight; containers that let oxygen in but keep nitrogen out – just about anything you need. And, finally, plastics can be combined with other types of materials to produce yet more products and possibilities.
Plastics are made from materials found in nature – petroleum, natural gas and coal. Basic compounds – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, for example – are extracted from these materials and then combined in an almost infinite number of ways to produce the many kinds of plastics used today.
Small molecules (monomers) found in the basic compounds are linked together using heat, pressure and the addition of reactive agents to form longer, giant molecules known as polymers, or plastics.
There are more than 30 distinct methods of converting plastic raw materials into finished parts. Four of the most prevalent are:
- Blow molding – for hollow objects (bottles, drums, containers)
- Molding – for solid objects (appliance housings, CD’s, boat hulls, etc.)
- Extrusion – for flat, rolled and tubular shapes (windows, doors, siding)
- Casting – for objects made from liquid resins (sink bowls, furniture, etc.)