Perfect Plastic: How Plastic Improves Our Lives

Strong, lightweight, and moldable, plastics are used in thousands of products that add comfort, convenience, and safety to our everyday lives. Plastics in carpets, blankets, and pillows keep us comfortable in our homes. Plastics in bottles and coolers allow us to take food and drinks with us anywhere. Plastics in portable electronic devices let us access the Internet or communicate with family and friends on the go. Plastics in sports players’ helmets and police officers’ bullet-proof vests keep them safe.

Plastics and Packaging

Plastic’s light weight, strength, and ability to be molded into any form makes it an ideal packaging material. Rigid plastic keeps fragile items secure and flexible plastic makes easy-to-carry bags. Plastic is used for food and non-food packaging. Foods stay fresh longer when packed in plastic, which reduces waste by reducing the amount of spoiled food that must be discarded and decreases the amount of preservatives needed to keep food fresh. Advances in plastic technology has made plastic packaging more efficient: the average packaging weight for a product has been reduced over 28 percent in the last decade. Plastic packaging is convenient for consumers: clear plastic lets shoppers view the item they are purchasing and plastic packaging is easy to open. Plastic packaging protects food, medicine, and other products from contamination and germs when it is displayed and handled. Plastic also protects consumers. Tamper-proof packaging keeps consumers safe and child-proof packaging keeps children safe from accidental poisoning by medications or chemicals. Plastic is shatter-proof, which reduces the potential for injury from broken items.

Plastics and Transportation

Because plastic is both lightweight and durable, it makes an ideal material for manufacturing cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Plastics make up ten percent of new vehicle’s total weight, and over 50 percent of their volume. Steering wheels, door liners, and stereo components are made of plastic, as are less visible parts, such as engine components. As plastic technology advances, many car companies envision using more plastic to lighten the weight of cars and trucks to make them more fuel-efficient. For every ten percent reduction in weight, a car or truck will save five to seven percent in fuel usage. Reduction in vehicle weight translates into a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions: every pound of vehicle weight that can be eliminated means 25.3 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions are saved over the vehicle’s life.

Plastics also make vehicles safer and more comfortable. Life-saving seat belts and airbags are made of plastic. Plastic padded pumpers, door frames, foam door panel inserts, plastic foam filled roof supports, and pillars are structural components that keep occupants safer during a crash. Molded plastic fuel tanks are less likely to split apart during a collision and shatter-proof headlights are less likely to break. The windshield of most cars contains a layer of plastic between two sheets of glass, which makes the windshield less likely to break during a collision. Plastics are also used to make the seats and dashboards more attractive and easy to use. Interior features of vehicles, such as carpets, are often made of recycled PET plastics, giving new life to used plastic beverage containers.

Plastics and Energy Efficiency

Plastics can make your home more energy-efficient. Plastic sealants and caulks can seal up window leaks and plastic foam weather stripping can make doors and windows draft-free. Clear plastic sheeting for windows improves insulation and decreases drafts in the winter. Plastic blinds, window shades, and drapes help insulate windows by keeping out the sun in warm months to keep the house cooler and by keeping in heat during the winter months. Plastic awnings and reflective films also help shade the home. Many brands of high efficiency LED light bulbs are made from recycled plastic. Plastic insulation in the walls, floors, attic, and roof of your home keeps heat in during the winter and out during the summer, which saves you energy and money on your heating and cooling. Plastic foam spray fills large and small holes in walls, doors, and attics.

Plastics in Sports

Plastics are used in many sports to increase athlete efficiency and safety. Plastic helmets—used in many sports, from football to skateboarding—made from molded polycarbonate with interior plastic foam padding reduce head injuries and concussions. Mouth guards reduce injury to the teeth, jaw, and mouth during collisions and plastic foam pads protect players’ shoulders, hips, tailbones, knees, and thighs from injury. Plastic foam pads down and distance markers in football and foam-wrapped goalposts protect players from injury during accidental collisions. Soccer players play with a plastic foam ball and polypropylene netting and benefit from foam shin guards, latex foam goalie gloves, and light-weight cleats. Even the turf of a football or soccer field may be made of plastic, which reduces water and fertilizer use and is recyclable. Plastic has many other uses in sports—from tennis players’ lightweight and strong rackets to beach volleyball’s wound nylon and plastic ball and runners’ shock-absorbing shoes.

Plastics and Medicine

Plastics increase the efficiency and hygiene of medicine from the surgery suite to the physician’s office. Plastic syringes and tubing are disposable to reduce disease transmission. Plastic intravenous blood, fluid, and medicine bags let health care workers more easily view dosages and replacement needs. Plastic heart valves and knee and hip joints save lives and make patients’ lives more comfortable. Plastic prosthesis help amputees regain function and improve their quality of life. Pill capsules made of plastic ensure correct dosage release in the body over time, which lets patients take fewer pills. Plastic catheters and balloons allow doctors to open blocked blood vessels and insert plastic vessel supports to keep them open and dissolve harmful deposits. In addition to plastic eyeglass lenses, contact lenses, and eyeglass frames, plastics help victims of eye injuries or disease see again: silicone artificial corneas can restore patients’ vision. Molded plastic hearing aids assist people with hearing loss to fully participate in conversations again.

Plastics in Electronics

Plastic’s strength, light weight, and moldability have revolutionized electronics. Plastic cables and cords on everything from computers to paper shredders keep electronics powered. Plastic insulation for cables and electrical equipment keeps equipment cool and protects users from over-heating. Household appliances, from toasters to DVD players, use plastic to make them lightweight and affordable. The liquid crystalline plastics in LCD flat screen televisions give beautiful pictures and save energy, using less power than traditional cathode ray tube screens. The touch screens on mobile phones, computers, and other electronics are made of polycarbonate film. The tiny microphones in mobile phones are made of polymers for their shock-resistance. Handsets and earpieces are lighter and more comfortable because of plastics.

  • Uses of Plastics: How plastics help consumers get the safety, performance, and value they want from their products.
  • Plastic Applications: How plastics are used in packaging, construction, automobiles, electronics, and household goods you use every day.
  • Plastic in Sports: How plastic contributes to improving athletic performance and safety in many different sports.
  • Societal Benefits of Plastics: How plastics have improved health, safety, and energy savings.
  • The Uses and Applications of Plastics: How plastic’s properties make it an ideal material for packaging, building, aerospace technology, electronics, agriculture, and medical uses.