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Plastic is a material which is made from a range of different organic polymers. It can be molded into a shape while soft and then be left to become rigid. Because plastic can be molded into many shapes, it is used for a large range of applications.

Plastic is a substance that is malleable and can be molded into different shapes. In fact the word plastic comes from the Greek plastikos meaning capable of being molded. Plastics do not conduct electricity, so they make good resistors. The majority of plastics are made from polymers which mainly contain carbon.

The first man-made plastic was created by British chemist Alexander Pakes in 1856. His plastic Parkesine was created using nitrocellulose. The company that made this early plastic went bankrupt. The birth of modern plastics came in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite. Bakelite was a synthetic plastic created by the Belgian-born American scientist Leo Baekeland. Baekeland used phenol, a substance derived from fossil fuels to create his new material. It didn’t conduct electricity and resisted heat. It could be easily molded and shaped so it could be use for a wide range of different things.

This led to a surge in the number of plastics being invented Polystyrene in 1929, Polyester in 1930, Polyvinylchloride (PVC) and Polythene in 1933 and Nylon in 1935. In 1941 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) was invented. This plastic is commonly used for soda bottles as it holds two atmospheric pressures while remaining transparent.

Plastics are extremely popular due to their low cost and ability to be molded into lots of different shapes. Plastics are now used in a range of packaging and household items and have been even used to build passenger aircrafts. Plastics do not biodegrade very easily. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The plastics last for an extremely long time; no microorganisms can break down the polymers. At the same time, this is a disadvantage because when plastics are thrown away, they sit for thousands of years in landfills. Scientists are now working to create new bioplastics that are biodegradable to reduce the amount of plastics in landfills.

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Example Uses of Different Plastics

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) - soda bottles, rope, carpet fiber
  • High-Density Polyethylene - milk bottles, water pipes, 3D printer filament
  • Polyvinyl Chloride - sewer pipes, insulation for electric cables, flooring
  • Low-Density Polyethylene - snap-on lids, playground slides, plastic wrap
  • Polypropylene - lab equipment, yogurt pots, flip-top lids
  • Polystyrene - disposable insulated coffee cups, protective packaging, cutlery
  • Nylon - parachute, toothbrush bristles, stockings
Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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