Plastics are responsible for countless facets of the modern life we enjoy today. From health and well being, nutrition, shelter and transportation to safety and security, communication, sports, leisure activities and, of course, packaging – plastics deliver bountiful benefits to you and your world.
Plastics improve our lives; bring us joy, convenience, efficiency and connection to others. Sometimes these materials even save our lives. In short, plastic flexibility and adaptability enable it to provide many different solutions in an increasingly complex world.
From sunrise to sunset, as you go through your typical day, take note of the role plastics play in your life — a role often taken for granted. You awaken to the sound of your alarm clock/radio, you make coffee, your use your toothbrush, you put on clothing, you fill your lunch box, you drive your car (putting your toddler in a child safety seat) or ride your bicycle (don’t forget that helmet!), you listen to your iPod, you make a few calls on your smartphone, you work at your computer, you enjoy a bottle of water, you remove the protective film from around the meat and vegetables you’ll prepare for dinner … And that only begins to touch the surface of the importance of plastics in your everyday life.
The Economic Benefits
The UK plastics industry is a global leader operating at the cutting edge of technology. Sales account for approximately £19bn (approximately 2.1% of UK GDP), the industry employs 220,000. The industry is a dominant player worldwide in the three core sectors that make up the plastics industry: material and additive manufacture, material processors and machinery manufacture.
It is estimated that the UK produces annually approximately 2,500 ktonnes of plastics. Supporting the household names in Polymer Manufacturer are a range of specialist materials, masterbatch and additives manufacturers, helping to enhance the performance and push forward the boundaries of plastics use verses traditional materials around the world.
The UK’s Plastics Processors consumes 4,800 ktonnes of material, 38 per cent of which is used in packaging and the UK remains one of the top 5 processors of plastics in the EU with some 4.8 million tonnes of materials processed in the UK.
Benefits of Plastics
Plastics are a vital component of thousands of products we rely upon every day. Can you imagine if everything made of plastic suddenly disappeared? It would be like turning the clock back a hundred years.
Without the plastic that wraps meat, fruit and vegetables to high density polyethylene molded to contain milk and juice to polypropylene which makes the tubs that contain your butter and margarine and yogurt containers food would quickly waste away.
Plastic food packaging is specially designed to extend the shelf-life of food, change colors if the food is adulterated or spoiled, preserve the quality and nutrient content of food and prevent serious food-borne illnesses.
Well before food arrives at the shops, vinyl is used in agricultural weed barrier films and conveyor belts, as well as gloves used in food processing, food wrap, and can liners.
When being transported in refrigerated trucks, polyurethane foam, sandwiched between layers of copolymer plastics, provide the thermal insulation necessary to maintain cold temperatures at reasonable levels of energy expenditure.
Polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) has been the material of choice for the health care industry for over 40 years. Over 25 % of all medical plastics and over 70% of all disposable medical applications are made of vinyl, including blood and IV bags and the supporting tubing.
Examination gloves, intravenous containers, dialysis equipment, inhalation masks and thermal blankets are also made of vinyl or polyurethane.
lastic syringes, used in hospitals and by millions of insulin-dependent diabetics at home, are made from polypropylene or acrylic.
Stethoscopes are made using polypropylene and polystyrene.
Thermoplastic polyurethane is used to make complex, robotic prosthetic limbs.
Polypropylene is used for lab ware, Petri dishes, IV and specimen bottles, food trays, bed pans, sharps containers and even nonwoven fabric for use in diapers, wipes and gowns. Polypropylene has also been formulated to enable parts to undergo radiation sterilization and still retain sufficient physical properties to perform as intended.
In addition, plastics provide many tools — retractable canes, bathmats, elevated toilet seats, nightlights, pill boxes — that help the elderly maintain independent lives or prevent injury.
Recently a "total artificial heart" was approved for use by the FDA that is comprised of semi-rigid polyurethane housing with four flexible polyurethane diaphragms. Other plastics used in the heart’s manufacture are nylon, polyester, polyethylene and PVC.
A walk through your house will reinforce how excellent plastic is for both thermal and electrical insulation. Consider all the appliances, cords, electrical outlets and wiring that are made or covered with polymeric materials.
Vinyl siding and PVC pipe for plumbing are obvious examples, but countertops and floor materials also may be made of plastic materials.
PVC pipe is corrosion resistant, has good chemical resistance, has tremendous strength to weight ratio, is resistant to wear and abrasion, provides watertight joints, is a good thermal insulator and provides great flame resistance.
Fluoropolymers insulate wire and cable placed in the air space between a suspended ceiling and the structural floor above. Fluoropolymers play a key role due to their excellent durability in fire situations to meet and exceed safety codes.
Plastic foam insulation expands to insulate mid-to larger-size areas of homes such as walls, attics and roofs. This insulation improves a home’s energy efficiency, and helps keep rooms at the desired temperature.
Polyurethane foam is the foundation for seat cushions, office chairs, mattresses and pillows.
Polyurethane carpet backing holds the carpet together and provides cushioning and sound absorption, and the carpet pile itself could be made from nylon.
Rigid polyurethane is used in ceiling and wall insulation, as well as in insulated windows and doors.
Because plastics are light in weight with varying degrees of strength, they are in demand when it comes to transportation. Lighter vehicles mean less fuel and less expense.
Fan belts, tank liners, sparkplug boots and ignition wires are made using polyolefins.
Thermoplastic elastomers are used for automobile exterior panels, fuel lines, fuel tanks and electronic wiring.
Because of its flexibility and resistance to heat and oil, polyethylene is used for a variety of hoses under the hood. Polyethylene timing belts are now being used in newer engines because of their strength and long term durability.
PVC is used for automobile door panels, seat coverings, molded armrests, instrument panels and corrosion-resistant undercoats.
Engineers also use rugged polymer fibers to make air bags, ultra-thin film for shatter-resistant windshields, and resilient foam to create impact-absorbing zones within the car frame.
Plastics also play a major role in modern aircraft — from seat cushions (and many of the same interior applications mentioned for cars above) to the fuselage and aviation electronics.
Some newer aircraft are built largely with carbon fiber reinforced plastic — a strong, durable, lightweight composite that delivers superior performance and is energy efficient.
Polyurethane and epoxy resins seal boat hulls from water, weather, corrosion and elements that increase drag, affect hydrodynamics and reduce durability.
Rigid polyurethane foam provides boats with insulation from noise and temperature extremes, abrasion and tear resistance, plus load-bearing capacity.
Since the invention of rayon (the first commercial synthetic fabric) in 1914, polymer science has brought us fashion textiles made from nylons, polyesters, spandex, polypropylene and acrylics — and often protective clothing coatings made from polyurethane or thermoplastic fluoropolymers.
Thanks to the flexible and adaptive properties of plastics, clothes can be light, stretchable, breathable, waterproof, silky or fuzzy, shiny or dull.
Spandex was created in the late 1950s and is able to stretch at least 100% and snap back to its original dimensions. Well after it was used to replace rubber in underwear, it has gone on to be the material of choice for sports clothing.
Ever since the 1960s when designer Mary Quant’s "wet look" miniskirts were popular, vinyl has been a successful clothing material. Its water-repelling characteristics make it great for rainwear.
Most bathing suits are made from plastic materials such as polyester, nylon and Spandex.
Waterproof boots are usually made from expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membranes or PVC.
Some material, like fleeces, can be made from other recycled plastic products.
Many people are now wearing ultra soft uniforms made from spun polyester fabrics derived from post-consumer products such as plastic bottles.
Entertainment and communication
From the protective outer shell, monitor, keyboard and mouse, to the motherboard, wiring, memory and cable connectors, desktop and laptop computers depend on plastics.
Light-emitting polymers (LEPs) are used as a thin film for full-spectrum color displays in laptops and handheld computers.
Cell phones would be bigger, heavier, and more expensive if not for plastics. The phone’s camera housing is made from injection molded plastic and its lens is clear polycarbonate. The display’s housing and backlight diffuser are also manufactured out of molded clear polycarbonate. Most phones’ case, top and bottom covers, and buttons are plastic. The phone's SIM card and printed circuit board are comprised of polyimide film.
DVDs and CDs are made of polycarbonate.
Long gone from movie theaters are the 3-D glasses made from cardboard and red and green plastic film lenses. New 3-D glasses typically consist of injection molded and thermoformed frames, with polarized film and polycarbonate lenses.