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, leisure activities and innovations of industry. Plastics improve our lives; bring us joy, convenience, efficiency and connection to others. Sometimes these materials even save our lives. In short, plastics’ flexibility and adaptability enable them 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 and hairbrush, you put on clothing, you fill your reusable lunch bag, 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.
With an abundance of beneficial uses that touch every aspect of modern society, it certainly makes sense that the plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. The U.S. plastics industry employs more than 1 million workers located at more than 17,600 plastics facilities. In fact, the plastics industry has a presence in every state and contributes $374 billion in annual shipments to our economy.
Can you imagine if everything you depend on in your life that is made of plastic suddenly disappeared? Most likely, cherished items that you did not even realize were made of plastic would be gone. Plastics are a vital component of thousands of products we rely upon every day.
■ From polyvinylidene chloride (that wraps meats, fruits and vegetables) to high density polyethylene (molded into milk and juice containers) to polypropylene (most butter/margarine and yogurt containers), 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 like botulism.
■ Well before food arrives at our grocery stores, 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 percent 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.
■ Plastic 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.
■ Several national hotel chains have employees now wearing ultra soft uniforms made from spun polyester fabrics derived from post-consumer products such as beverage bottles.
■ 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 — for our video games, music, data and movies — are made of polycarbonate.
■ Vinyl recordings, once thought to have been made obsolete by CDs and digital files, are making a comeback — particularly among teen and college-aged audiophiles.
■ 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.
■ Bike, football, hockey and other sports helmets are often made of polycarbonate, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) on the outer "shell" combined with an inside liner made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Helmet straps are generally made of nylon or polypropylene.
■ Thermoformed plastic mouth guards used in football, hockey and basketball can help protect the hard and soft tissues of the mouth from damage caused by traumatic blows and collisions.
■ From the kicking tee to the foam-padded down and distance markers on the sidelines and the bright colored pylons that mark the corners of the end zone, plastics are very much present on college or pro football fields.
■ Leather gloves used by baseball pitchers and fielders are lined with polyurethane surface film to give players protection and the ability to catch the ball with ease.
■ Baseball catchers (and umpires) are covered in many plastic products: masks (made from a solid vinyl coated metal frame), chest protectors (covered in nylon and made from polyethylene plastic sternum inserts) and shin guards (padded with foam).
■ Many stadiums employ synthetic grass fields with individual blades made from plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon that mimic the soft but sturdy texture of natural grass.
■ Many above ground pools and most inflatable wading pools are made from some combination of PVC (which has excellent resistance to damage via abrasion, impact and sunlight), polypropylene and polyester mesh.
■ Backyard pools also depend on flexible, durable and easy-to-clean vinyl liners to keep their inner surfaces smooth on feet and protected from sunlight, abrasion and water-treatment chemicals.
■ Swimming pools with vinyl and polypropylene covers bring safety and peace of mind to pool owners with very small children.
■ Diving boards are usually covered with polyurethane epoxy resin paint that creates a non-skid surface to prevent dangerous slips.
■ Components of tents, backpacks and sleeping pads used by outdoor campers are made from rip stop nylon, polyester, high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene and polyurethane foam.
■ Mugs, bowls and utensils for outdoor eating are manufactured from polypropylene, nylon and polycarbonate.
American Chemistry Council
SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association Vinyl Institute
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SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association represents the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. SPI’s member companies represent the entire plastics industry supply chain, including processors, machinery and equipment manufacturers and raw materials suppliers. One of three leadership councils under the SPI umbrella, the Material Suppliers Council is the main point of engagement into the organization for all resin, additive, colorant and other material suppliers.