Plastics are so diverse that they can be formed into parts that can take the heat inside a car’s engine to being soft enough to be used as a base to make chewing gum. There are cutting edge thermoplastics that maintain structural integrity at temperatures higher than 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Other plastics are designed to remain flexible at sub-zero temperatures.
The thing that makes plastics so valuable is, well, they are plastic! They can be moulded into practically any shape, be rigid or flexible, and anything in between. Plastic parts build our houses and even rebuild the bones of our joints when they fail.
Bakelite, invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, was the first synthetic plastic to be made. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has invented a large plastic molecule known as PG5 that may be used to deliver drugs to tissues within the body. For over 100 years, plastics have been advancing, and they are being used in many innovative ways.
Some plastics, such as nylon, became popular for use in fashion and in war. In the 1930s, nylon stockings were in short supply when the material was needed to make things for the war effort such as parachute cords. Plastics even make some products economically viable by permitting containers to be designed to safely get them to consumers.
Even the flexible tray inside a box of chocolates is made from plastic as done so by Origin Manufacturing which is used to keep each confection intact in its own spot. In fact, some mixed boxes of chocolate confections can have a map on the lid, which allows consumers to tell the creams from the caramels because each piece will be in its place when it arrives home to be consumed. Foam plastic trays are a standard in protecting apples, pears and other fruits as they are often shipped thousands of miles to the produce sections of local grocery stores.
Plastic trays, containers, bottles, films and bags are found in every aisle of the grocery store. Metalized plastic bags are being used in place of cans for consumer items ranging from tuna fish to microwaveable rice. Many consumer packaging options made of plastic also double as the cooking container. Steam-in-bag vegetables and plastic bags of rice that cook while floating in a pot of boiling water are two examples.
Even natural products such as modern leather saddles are sewn using a nylon string instead of sinew due to the higher strength and durability of the synthetic nylon over the organic original that was formerly used. Plastics are found in everything from the pipes that carry away waste water to plastic contacts that improve vision. There are even plastic implantable lenses to let those suffering from cataracts see clearly again.
Plastic can be sterile for use in medicine, and it can be treated to prevent the growth of mold in areas like the plastic walls of a shower in a home bathroom. Synthetic plastics are often less expensive to use in commercial packaging over things such as glass or metal containers. Also, like glass and metal, plastic is recyclable. The 2-liter soda bottles that once held a soft drink are regularly recycled into polyfil, which is used as insulation in winter coats as well as the filling for pillows.
About the only thing that plastics do not do well is biodegrade. Sunlight degrades plastics, which causes them to be easily broken down into smaller pieces. The plastic is still there though. It is just smaller. There is ongoing research into making plastics that will biodegrade in landfills. More consumer food products that are available in jars are being packaged in plant-based plastic containers that do biodegrade into inert soil materials and bio-gases. As this technology advances and catches on, there may be a day when plastics can do just about anything.
Conor McCann is a freelance blogger who writes on business and marketing topics