Uses Of Plastics

The Importance of Plastics in our Lives

Plastics are Used to Create Many Household Products
Plastics are Used to Create Many Household Products. jml5571/Getty Images

Most modern plastics are based on organic chemicals which offer a huge range of physical properties to manufacturers — the range of formulations is vast and still growing. There was a time when anything made of plastic was considered to be of inferior quality, but those days are past. You are probably wearing plastic right now — maybe a polyester/cotton mix garment or even spectacles or a watch with plastic components.

Why Is Plastic Important?

The versatility of plastic materials comes from the ability to mold, laminate or shape them, and to tailor them physically and chemically. There is a plastic suitable for almost any application. Plastics do not corrode, though they can degrade in UV (a component of sunlight) and can be affected by solvents — for example, PVC plastic is soluble in acetone.

However, because many plastics are so durable and do not corrode, they create considerable disposal problems. They are not good for the landfill as many will persist for hundreds of years and when incinerated, dangerous gases can be produced. Many supermarkets now give us one-time grocery bags — leave them in a cupboard for a year and all you will have left is dust — they are engineered to degrade. Perversely, some plastics can be cured (hardened) by UV — that just goes to show how varied their formulas are.

We are getting wiser, though, and now many plastics can be chemically, mechanically, or thermally recycled.

Plastics in the Home

There is a huge percentage of plastic in your television, your sound system, your cell phone, your vacuum cleaner — and probably plastic foam in your furniture too. What are you walking on? Your floor covering if it is not real wood probably has a synthetic/natural fiber blend (just like some of the clothes you wear).

Take a look in the kitchen — you may have plastic chair or bar stool seats, plastic countertops (acrylic composites, plastic linings (PTFE) in your non-stick cooking pans, plastic plumbing in your water system — the list is almost endless. Then go open the refrigerator!

Plastics in the Food Industry

The food in your refrigerator may be wrapped in PVC cling film, your yogurt is probably in plastic tubs, cheese in plastic wrap and water and milk in blow-molded plastic containers. There are plastics which now prevent gas escaping from pressurized soda bottles, but cans and glass are still #1 for beer. For some reason, guys just don't like to drink beer from plastic. When it comes to canned beer, though, you will find that the inside of the can is often lined with a plastic polymer. How logical is that?

Plastics in Transport

Trains, planes, and automobiles — even ships, satellites and space stations all use plastics extensively. We use to build ships from wood and planes from a string (hemp) and canvas (cotton/flax). We had to work with the materials that nature provided. No more — we now design our own materials. Whatever mode of transport you pick you will find plastic is used extensively, for example:

  • Seating
  • Paneling
  • Instrument enclosures
  • Surface coverings

Plastics are even used in combination with other materials are used as structural elements in all kinds of transport. Yes, even skateboards, roller blades, and bicycles.

Challenges for the Plastics Industry

We have outlined just a small sample of the diverse uses of plastics, and it is clear that modern life would very different without them. However, there are challenges ahead.

Because many plastics are based ultimately on crude oil, there is a continuous rise in the cost of raw materials and this increasing cost is something that chemical engineers are trying to work around. We now have biofuel for automobiles and the feedstock for that fuel grows on the land. As this production increases so 'sustainable' feedstock for the plastic industry will become more widely available.

The issue of environmental persistence is the other area where plastics are challenged. We do need to solve the disposal issue and that is being actively addressed through materials research, recycling policies, and enhanced public awareness.