Plastics: A Comprehensive Guide to Properties, Types, and Applications

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 16, 2022
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Plastics are everywhere. From the water bottle you drink from to the phone you use to read this article, they’re all made from some sort of plastic. But what are they exactly?

Plastics are man-made materials derived from organic polymers, mostly petrochemicals. They’re usually molded into various shapes and sizes and used for a variety of applications. They’re lightweight, durable, and resistant to corrosion and high temperatures.

Let’s look at everything there is to know about plastics.

What are plastics

Plastics: The Building Blocks of Modern Life

Plastics are materials made from polymers, which are long chains of molecules. These polymers are built from smaller parts called monomers, which are typically supplied from coal or natural gas. The process of making plastics involves mixing these monomers together and passing them through a couple of different stages to turn them into a solid material. This process is relatively easy and can be done in a variety of different ways, which means that there are many different kinds of plastics out there.

The Properties of Plastics

One of the main properties of plastics is their ability to be molded into any shape. Plastics are also highly resistant to electricity and are often used to protect electrical cables carrying electricity. Plastics are slightly sticky, which means that they can be used to mix different ingredients together. Plastics are also highly resistant to water, which makes them ideal for use in storage containers. Finally, plastics are lightweight, which means that they are easy to transport and store.

The Environmental Impact of Plastics

Plastics have a significant impact on the environment. Plastics are not biodegradable, which means that they do not break down naturally over time. This means that plastics can remain in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years. Plastics can also be harmful to wildlife, as animals may mistake bits of plastic for food. In addition, plastics can release harmful chemicals into the environment when they are burned.

The Fascinating Etymology of the Word “Plastic”

In science and manufacturing, the term “plastic” has a more technical definition. It refers to a material that can be shaped or molded using techniques such as extrusion or compression. Plastics can be made from a variety of materials, including natural substances like cellulose and synthetic materials like polyethylene.

The Use of “Plastic” in Manufacturing

Plastics are used in a wide range of manufacturing applications, from packaging materials to automotive parts. One of the most common uses of plastic is in the production of bottles and containers. Plastics are also used in the construction industry, as they are lightweight, durable, and resistant to corrosion.

Plastics can be classified based on their physical and chemical properties, as well as their structure and processing. Here are some of the most common classifications of plastics:

  • Commodity plastics: These are the most commonly used plastics and are used in a wide range of applications. They are typically composed of simple polymer structures and are produced in high volume.
  • Engineering plastics: These plastics are used in more specialized applications and are typically composed of more complex polymer structures. They have higher thermal and chemical resistance than commodity plastics.
  • Specialty plastics: These plastics are used in highly specialized applications and are typically composed of unique polymer structures. They have the highest thermal and chemical resistance of all plastics.
  • Amorphous solids: These plastics have a disordered molecular structure and are typically transparent and brittle. They have a low glass transition temperature and are commonly used in packaging and molded goods.
  • Crystalline solids: These plastics have an ordered molecular structure and are typically opaque and durable. They have a high glass transition temperature and are commonly used in goods that compete with metals.

Get to Know the Different Types of Plastics

Commodity plastics are the most commonly used types of plastics in the world. They are known for their versatility and are used in a wide range of everyday products. These plastics are made from polymer materials and are mainly used for making single-use products. Some of the most commonly used commodity plastics include:

  • Polyethylene: This thermoplastic is the biggest-selling plastic in the world, with over 100 million tonnes produced annually. It is used in a variety of products, including plastic bags, water bottles, and food packaging.
  • Polypropylene: This polyolefin is known for its high melting point and is commonly used in construction, electrical, and automotive applications. It is also used in a variety of household products, including food containers, utensils, and toys.
  • Polystyrene: This commodity plastic is used in a variety of applications, including packaging, construction, and food service. It is also used to create foam products, such as coffee cups and packaging materials.

Engineering Plastics: The Superior Choice for Technical Applications

Engineering plastics are a step up from commodity plastics in terms of their technical properties. They are used in a variety of applications that require superior performance, such as in the construction of vehicles and electronic devices. Some of the most commonly used engineering plastics include:

  • Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS): This thermoplastic is known for its high impact resistance and is commonly used in the construction of electronic devices, automotive parts, and toys.
  • Polycarbonate: This engineering plastic is known for its high strength and is commonly used in the construction of lenses, vehicle parts, and electronic devices.
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): This thermoplastic is commonly used in the production of bottles and other food packaging products.

Specialty Plastics: The Alternative to Traditional Materials

Specialty plastics are a diverse group of plastics that are used in a variety of applications. They are often preferred over traditional materials, such as wood and metal, due to their unique properties. Some of the most commonly used specialty plastics include:

  • Polyurethanes: These chemically diverse plastics are used in a variety of applications, including the production of foam products, coatings, and adhesives.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): This plastic is commonly used in the construction of pipes, electrical cables, and flooring.
  • Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polycarbonate Blend: This plastic blend combines the properties of ABS and polycarbonate to create a material that is strong, durable, and heat-resistant. It is commonly used in the production of electronic device cases and automotive parts.

Identifying Plastics: The Basics of Plastic Identification

Plastics are identified by a code that is concentrated in a small triangle on the product. This code helps to identify the type of plastic used in the product and helps with recycling efforts. Here are the seven codes and the types of plastics they cover:

  • Code 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
  • Code 2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Code 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Code 4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Code 5: Polypropylene (PP)
  • Code 6: Polystyrene (PS)
  • Code 7: Other Plastics (includes specialty plastics, such as polycarbonate and ABS)

Plastic Fantastic: The Wide Range of Applications for Plastics

Plastics are one of the largest and most important materials in the world, with a wide range of applications that have become integral to our daily lives. Here are just a few of the ways that plastics are used:

  • Packaging: Plastics are used extensively in packaging, from food containers to shipping materials. The durability and flexibility of plastics make them ideal for protecting products during transport and storage.
  • Textiles: Synthetic fibers made from plastics are used in a variety of textiles, from clothing to upholstery. These materials are lightweight, strong, and resistant to wear and tear.
  • Consumer goods: Plastics are used in a wide range of consumer goods, from toys to kitchen appliances. The versatility of plastics allows manufacturers to create products that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Transportation and Electronics: Plastics in Machine and Technology

Plastics are also essential in the transportation and electronics industries, where their unique characteristics make them ideal for a variety of applications:

  • Transportation: Plastics are used extensively in the automotive and aerospace industries, where their lightweight and durable properties make them ideal for use in everything from car parts to airplane components.
  • Electronics: Plastics are used in a wide range of electronic devices, from smartphones to computers. The insulating properties of plastics make them ideal for protecting delicate electronic components from damage.

The Future of Plastics: Innovations and Sustainability

As the world becomes more aware of the environmental impact of plastics, there is a growing focus on developing sustainable alternatives. Here are some of the ways that the plastics industry is working to create a more sustainable future:

  • Bioplastics: Bioplastics are made from renewable resources such as corn starch and sugarcane, and are biodegradable or compostable.
  • Recycling: The recycling of plastics is becoming increasingly important, with many companies and governments investing in new technologies to make recycling more efficient and effective.
  • Innovation: The plastics industry is constantly innovating, with new materials and production methods being developed all the time. These innovations are helping to create a more sustainable future for plastics.

Plastics and the Environment: A Toxic Relationship

Plastics, while useful and versatile materials, have a potential to cause harm to the environment. The problem of plastic pollution is not new and has been a growing concern for scientists and environmentalists for over a century. Here are some of the ways plastics can harm the environment:

  • Plastics are manufactured using harmful chemicals and compounds such as phthalates and BPA which can leach into the environment and cause harm to human health.
  • When discarded, plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose, leading to the accumulation of plastic waste in landfills and oceans.
  • Plastic waste can harm habitats and reduce ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production capabilities, and social well-being.
  • Consumer products made from plastics such as toys, food packaging, and water bottles can contain harmful levels of phthalates and BPA, which can cause health problems such as cancer, reproductive issues, and developmental problems.

Possible Solutions to the Problem of Plastic Pollution

While the problem of plastic pollution may seem overwhelming, there are ways society can work to reduce the harm caused by plastics. Here are some possible solutions:

  • Reduce the use of single-use plastics such as straws, bags, and utensils.
  • Increase recycling efforts and promote the use of biodegradable plastics.
  • Encourage the development of sustainable alternatives to plastics.
  • Support policies and regulations that limit the use of harmful chemicals in plastic production.
  • Educate consumers about the harmful effects of plastics and promote responsible consumption.


Plastics are a man-made material used to make a wide variety of products. They’re made from synthetic polymers, and are used in everything from packaging to construction.

So, don’t be afraid of plastics! They’re a great material for many things, and don’t contain harmful chemicals. Just be aware of the dangers and don’t overuse them.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.