Plastics that Make Sports Possible

artificial rolled green grass - plastic

Artificial rolled green grass made with plastic

Here in the United States, there’s no need to look to a calendar to know Fall has officially arrived. There’s a smell of pumpkin spice in the air, mostly because of everything from coffee to Spam seem to have embraced the seasonal flavor (nope, we didn’t make that up – Pumpkin Spice Spam is here). The air is crisper and the leaves are starting to change. The biggest enjoyments that Fall brings to us, however, are some of the biggest and best events that modern society has to offer; SPORTS!

From the launch of football season to the culmination of baseball in a seven-game winner takes all nail-biter, cooler weather becomes the ideal time to view and participate in some of the most popular athletic events around. And while Fall is fortunate to host a few of the most popular events, sports are definitely a year-round experience. Before you know it players will be hitting the ice for Winter Hockey, then the courts for basketball and tennis and as soon as the greens perk up in Spring you know we’ll all be pretending not to be bored by the sonorous voice of golf announcers.

And while these games, played on different seasons, with different tools, and on different surfaces may seem disparate, there’s one material that makes them all possible; plastic! When it comes to athletic events, plastics and sports go together like peanut butter and jelly. In fact, without plastics, many of your favorite modern athletics would be incredibly different as far as safety and execution. Ready to hear about how this magical material makes your fantasy leagues go round? Let’s dive in!

Balls and Sticks and Bats Oh My

Featherie golf balls

“Featherie” golf balls

Whether you know it or not, plastics are involved in nearly every touchdown, score, goal, or stroke in the wide world of sports, improving the games we know and love. At the advent of the game of golf, for example, the first balls were made of wood and often broke or became disfigured during play. Leather sacks filled with cow hair and feathers were a more durable innovation but were often expensive and not as accessible to all levels of players. Fast forward to modern times and golf balls with rubber centers and plastic covers are the industry norm when it comes to performance and price.

The very first leather basketballs may have a certain nostalgic air to them but their modern hi-tech counterparts utilize plastic components to help sink those free throw and dunk those buckets. Today’s basketball features a rubber bladder surrounded by a plastic polymer covering and encased in a final pebbled leather cover, each layer held together with polyester thread. Tennis racquets also come with the option of either plastic or natural strings depending on your personal preference and level of expertise.

modern plastic surfboard

Modern surfboard

Classic surfboards may have been made with lacquered and painted wood, but today’s plastic versions are lighter weight, more durable, and highly buoyant to assist riders with catching that perfect ten wave. Finally, while the original soccer balls also utilized cowhides, today’s goal-scoring wonders are made up of a synthetic lookalike, typically polyurethane 06020 or polyvinyl chloride, combining the classic look and feel with modern innovation.

All About the Safety

While the equipment utilized in your favorite sporting event is all fun and games, it’s in protecting the individual players and spectators of recreational sports that plastic really shows its versatility. Sports from BMX, to car racing, to baseball, to horse racing all utilize hi-tech helmets made using a combination of plastic materials.

Football helmets, for example, are created using a hard outer molded polycarbonate shell and either polyurethane, polystyrene, polypropylene, or ethylene-vinyl acetate foam inside to absorb impact and cushion the head. Mouthguards, faceplates, and buckles and straps are also plastic components that support the health and safety of yourself, your favorite athlete, or perhaps your own son or daughter.

Beyond football, protective gear such as knee pads and shoulder pads are often made with flexible plastics that also provide protection with wear such as polyester or polyethylene terephthalate. Jerseys and other athletic uniforms often utilize common textile plastics to help with breathability and durability on the field during rough play. Major athletic company Adidas even has its own line of athletic gear that is made using plastic recovered from recycling and cleanup efforts in the earth’s oceans.

Substrate and Beyond

While it may be obvious that certain aspects of your favorite athlete’s protective gear or playing equipment utilize plastic, it may be more difficult to spot the versatile material’s use on the track or field. For example, while most gymnasts appreciate the bouncy texture and forgiving nature of the gym mat floors they practice and compete on, most would be surprised to learn just how complicated the apparatus is. The base layer of springs is typically attached to multiple panels of plastics reinforced with glass, such as fiberglass, and then topped with layers of plastic foam for that perfect bounce and plenty of forgiveness in the case of a missed landing. Indoor Olympic running tracks are also comprised of plastic utilizing polyurethane as its base for optimal running performance with a lower impact on athlete’s joints.

200M Men’s run in the Rio 2016 Olympics, on polyurethane running track surface.

Many outdoor sports typically played on grass such as football or soccer often rely on artificial turfs. These sophisticated substrates are typically manufactured utilizing polyethylene plastic grass and can be especially useful in cold weather or other climates where growing natural grass for a year-round season may not be possible. In addition, many modern manufacturers are employing recycling methods to turn waste plastics into sophisticated playing fields for both amateur and professional teams.

Keeping Things Secure

Perhaps the most versatile use of plastics in sports often comes in the least visible areas. Next time you visit your favorite team’s arena, you’ll likely find plastic fasteners affixing those banners to the railings or rafters. Plastic fasteners are used in a variety of sports gear such as helmets and pads and specialized fasteners are often to bundle gear and secure storage equipment.

In short, the chameleon-like properties of the versatile plastic means that the material is often at your fingertips, under your feet, or supporting your favorite athlete when you least expect it. If the flexible, moldable, supportive plastic can do this for your favorite high-performance athlete, imagine what the right plastic formulation could do for you in your next job-site application.