Plastic is a general term for any plastic material made from raw materials like petroleum, natural gas and plants. Plastic consists of polymers which are long molecules that exist of recurring same building blocks.
Natural gas is the raw materials that is used for most plastics. You will have seen that where ever we go, we deal with plastic. We can find it in our clothes, toys, smartphones, cosmetics and cars.
Yearly people produce almost 250 million tonnes of plastic. All divided over a countless number of products. We can say that most products on the planet exist out of plastic or plastics.
How did plastic originate?
People often think that plastic is a modern material, but nothing is farther from the truth. The natural polymers are being made longer than human kind.
1500 B.C. is the year when people started playing with rubber balls, made from natural polymers. In the middle ages windows were made in lanterns from slices of cow horns. Horn is made from keratin, which is the same stuff that is in our nails and hairs.
But there was also a patent pending for vulcanized rubber. And if we add a little sulfer to this, we could create tyres for bicycles for example.
In a later period, this was also used to create car tyres. As we can see, polymers were useda long time ago.
The plastic price started rising with each new product. But the first synthetic plastic from petroleum was made in 1907 by the Belgian American Leo Baekeland.
This man even named it after himself by naming is Bakelite.
Because this stuff was good against heat, it started being used a lot in products like radios, phones, kitchen appliances and jewelry. It quickly became the material that was symbolic for modern life.
The new plastics after the time of bakelite
The years of bakelite went by when chemists and inventors discovered a couple new types of plastic. These types of plastics developed different properties. The chemists and inventors saw that by changing little things in the polymers, we could influence the hardness of the plastic as well as the durability. This is when the new plastic seemed a good replacement for glass.
This became useful for drinking cups and food trays. This became so hard it could easily handle some bumps. We all know that glass breaks when it falls, but plastic bounces right back up. Plastic can be useful and is being used for centuries.
But it can also become an environmental problem, because it arises everywhere and is hard to get rid of, at least even naturally. The bad thing about plastic is that it is now used as a symbol for pollution, even though it is so necessary for a lot of products.
What is plastic made out of?
We can find polymers all over nature. Think about wood, cotton, rubber but also DNA. This is what we call natural polymers.
And plastic is an artificial polymer. The raw materials of most plastics is petroleum. If we have 10 kilos of petroleum, we could easily made about 3.000 bags for a supermarket.
Ten procent of oil is being used for plastic production and the rest if being used for fuel oil or petrol. Because this raw material is easily malleable we can form it to what we want during the creating process.
What types of plastic are there?
As you might have guessed, there are many different types of plastics that we can use for various purposes. You can divide them in three categories.
Thermoplasts get really soft when we heat them up, which has the advantage that they are easily malleable. We are able to recycle them better like that.
Think about plastic bags, styrofoam and toys. These are mainly made from these plastics. Because the molecules are made of thermoplasts, they exist of long chains that are formed loosely together, which we can, when heated, shape easily.
Thermosets keep their shape when heated. This is because the polymers of thermosets are connected to each other strongly on many places and we cannot move them seperately from each other.
The chains are knit together tightly. Thermosets are harder to create, because the material burns quickly at high temperatures. And that makes it non-recyclable as well.
This kind of plastic is made to create cleaning gloves for example. At some spots these molecule chains have sideways connections. This makes them very elastic and stretchable without losing shape.
The difference between plastics?
There is a way to say plastics and we all think we know what we mean. But the problem is that there are so many differences that we need to tell them apart. Like thermoplasts, thermosets, elastomas, where the three groups differ in structure, solvability and melting point.
A plastic is a material that we can shape through heating. This is a thermoplast.
If we say thermosets, we think about polyester or elastomas that we get from artificial rubbers. All these shapes are plastics, while they are technically not.
Plastics are not subject to external influences and are durable.
Advantages of plastic
It is a cheap product that does not oxidize. It is flexible and some plastics are also durable. The plastic price can differ.
How did the word plastic originate?
The name plastic originates from the Latin word plasticus and the Greek word plastikos. Since the 17th century, the word is used in the form of “able to shape”. In the current meaning plastic is used as a fabric we can shape.
Raw material prices plastics
Because there is a limited availability for plastics, the rising prices can be seen. This is caused in an increase in demand from Asia and long breaks in the production. Besides this, it is a challenge to receive the raw materials in time which makes the raw material prices and the price of plastic rise a lot. Plastic is being produced less and less.