Plastics – Where is the Industry Headed?

Plastics IndustryWhat is the meaning of PLASTIC?

The word originally meant something that is “pliable and easily shaped.” Today, this type of pliability is best categorized as polymers. These are plastics that define a substance made of “many parts or long chains of molecules.” These polymers and other plastic materials were actually developed from nature. Polymers are a part of nature as in the Cellulose (cell walls) of plants. Although today, modern polymers are synthetically made with carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. So where do we get the different strengths of these plastics?

It is the long chains of atoms placed in repeated units that make polymers strong, flexible and lightweight.

The First Synthetic Polymers

The first full synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. Apparently, Hyatt entered a contest offered by a New York firm offering $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The use of ivory had depleted the population of wild elephants.

By treating cellulose from cotton with camphor, Hyatt found that it could be made into a variety of shapes and could make forms that had previously been made with tortoise shell, ivory, or horn elements. This discovery was amazing for that time. It was a moment when the manufacturing of goods was no longer constrained by the limits of nature.

Undeniably, Bakelite became a substance used for many types of production. It was durable, heat resistant, and suited for mechanical mass production. At the time it was marketed as the material of a thousand uses because it could be shaped and molded into just about everything.

Soon chemical companies began investing in research and the development of new polymers.

Modern-Day Plastics

The onset of the Great Depression and World War II required more of plastics because they were inexpensive materials. Soon, plastics proved to be an important asset to American military success. It was during this time that plexiglass and nylon, among other types of plastics were invented.  Nylon, created by Wallace Carothers was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armor, liners and more.

Plexiglas offered a superb alternative to glass in the manufacture of aircrafts.  The war turned to plastic and its adaptability for many uses.

Since the early part of the 20th century plastics have challenged traditional materials and won. They have taken the place of steel in the automotive industry, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in home products.  

The Future of Plastics

With the world changing, and Global Warming becoming a great concern, people have recently become concerned with regards to plastics. Yet, despite the growing mistrust, plastics are still critical to our future. Plastics make it possible to develop high-tech products like computers, cell phones, cars, health industry products and more. Plastics help save fossil fuels and improve our standard of living. Without them, we would not have the economy we do. Replacing natural materials with plastic has made the products we use cheaper, safer, stronger and lighter.

More Innovation Is Needed

Plastics have a valued place in our lives, yet, we do need to make them more sustainable.  Even as we speak, innovators and scientists are working hard to make plastics more biodegradable. Scientists, manufacturers and innovators know that plastics are not perfect but that they are critical to our growth. Work is continuing to make plastics a viable product, one that is recyclable and renewable.

Despite the drawbacks, we have seen considerable improvement in the development of new plastic processes and in the use of composites that bring the benefits of lightweight and strength. These types of plastics are used in aircraft design, military applications, consumer products and many engineering innovations.

Automobile manufacturers have long turned to lightweight plastic components to reduce vehicle weight, improve gas mileage and reduce cost. Most automobile manufacturers now have plastic molding capabilities on-site, as they realize that eliminating plastics is not the answer to our problems. To the contrary, the solution to our recycling problems lies in creating better plastic products.

What Is Needed?

We need more research and development in plastics. We need to create better and stronger plastic composites that offer durability and functionality. Eliminating plastics is not the answer, but making these products more energy friendly and biodegradable is. To obtain this, the answer is collaboration across all industries.

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