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Plastic and it’s uses

Plastic in the UK

In the UK alone:

  • 275,000 tonnes of plastic are used each year, that’s about 15 million bottles per day.
  • Most families throw away about 40kg of plastic per year, which could otherwise be recycled.
  • The use of plastic in the UK is growing at about 4% each year.
  • The average UK household uses 480 plastic bottles each year, with only 270 being recycled. That means 44% are being sent to landfill.

Most UK families throw away about 40kg of plastic per year.

What is plastic?

Plastic is any synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymer and the name “plastic” refers to the property of plasticity, which is the ability to deform without breaking.

For the chemists amongst you, most plastics are formed in chains called organic polymers made up from thousands of small repeating molecules called monomers. The vast majority of these polymers are formed from chains of carbon atoms, sometimes with the intermittent addition of oxygen, nitrogen, or sulphur in the chain.

To customize the properties of a plastic, different molecular groups “hang” from this backbone, and it is the structure of these side chains that influences the properties of the polymer. On top of this polymers used to make a plastic are almost always mixed with additives, including colourants, plasticizers, stabilizers, and fillers. These additives affect the chemical composition, chemical properties, and mechanical properties of plastics, and further increase possible applications.

Plastic comes in so many different forms that it would take a book just to describe them all, so to make life simple here is a brief look at the most common type of plastic on the planet i.e. Polyethylene or polythene. The annual global production is around 80 million tonnes and its primary use is in packaging and containers e.g. Plastic bags, plastic films, geomembranes, and bottles. Even polyethylene has a whole host of forms but most have the same chemical formula of (C2H4) repeated over and over again.

It is such a simple concept but has so much flexibility and strength at the same time.

The raw materials for this and other plastics come from many places (some even use salt!), but most have been made from the hydrocarbons that are readily available in natural gas, oil and coal, not surprisingly 5% of the world’s oil production currently goes into its manufacture.

Apart from the myriad of plastic forms, there are two basic types, thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers. The former can be heated and re-moulded over and over again and are relatively easy to recycle whereas the latter solidify into a permanent shape, and can be a recycling nightmare.

Most plastics are formed in chains called organic polymers made up from thousands of small repeating molecule.

5% of the world’s oil production currently goes into the manufacture of plastic.

Why plastic is amazing

The first documented plastic was created in 1855 by the British inventor and metallurgist Alexander Parkes who used natural cellulose in combination with nitric acid and chemical solvents to create a plastic he patented as “Parkesine.” However the first totally human-made, completely synthetic plastic came about in 1907 when Belgian-born, New York-based Leo Baekeland used hydrocarbon chemicals he derived from coal to create Bakelite. Initially this material was used in radio and television casings, kitchenware and even toys, then as an understanding of it’s versatility increased it came to be known as ‘the material of a thousand uses’.

And so we emerged the plastic era and it especially took off following World War II when it was used to make all kinds of day to day household items.

Today there are thousands of different types of plastics, worldwide we manufacture around 300 million tonnes of the stuff. Not surprising really because it is strong, versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, durable, virtually indestructible, chemical resistant and low cost.

These are wonderful useful qualities, and plastic plays many important roles in life on Earth.

Think about its uses:

  • Healthcare  – disposable blood bags, tubing, catheters, syringes, artificial limbs, lifesaving valves
  • Food – packaging techniques have reduced food spoilage to as little as 2%.
  • Clothing – we now have a huge range of low cost synthetic clothing available to all, in 2013 that was about 55 million tonnes of clothing – polyester, nylon, acrylic and spandex.
  • Other – Car parts, toys, computers, phones, radios, window frames, etc, etc.

It seems to be the ideal product for manufacturing just about anything!

Plastic plays an important part in life, even being a component in artificial limbs.