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Plastics are a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as the main ingredient. Their plasticity makes it possible for plastics to be molded, extruded, or pressed into solid objects of various shapes.
This adaptability, plus a wide range of other properties, such as being lightweight, durable, flexible, and inexpensive to produce, has led to its widespread use. Plastics typically are made through human industrial systems.
Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum; however, recent industrial methods use various renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives.
In developed economies, about a third of plastic is used in packaging and roughly the same in buildings in applications such as piping, plumbing, or vinyl siding. Other uses include automobiles (up to 20% plastic, furniture, and toys.
In the developing world, plastic applications may differ; 42% of India’s consumption is used in packaging. In the medical field, polymer implants and other medical devices are derived at least partially from plastic. Worldwide, about 50 kg of plastic is produced annually per person, with production doubling every ten years.
The world’s first fully synthetic plastic was Bakelite, invented in New York in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, who coined the term “plastics.”
Dozens of different plastics are produced today, such as polyethylene, which is widely used in product packaging, and polyvinyl chloride, used in construction and pipes because of its strength and durability.
Many chemists have contributed to the materials science of plastics, including Nobel laureate Hermann Staudinger, who has been called “the father of polymer chemistry,” and Herman Mark, known as “the father of polymer physics.”
The success and dominance of plastics starting in the early 20th century have caused widespread environmental problems due to their slow decomposition rate in natural ecosystems.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the plastics industry promoted recycling to assuage environmental concerns while producing virgin plastic.
The main companies producing plastics doubted the economic viability of recycling, which is reflected in the contemporary plastic collection. Plastic collection and recycling are largely ineffective because of the complexity of cleaning and sorting post-consumer plastics.
Most plastic produced has not been reused, either being captured in landfills or persisting in the environment as plastic pollution. Plastic pollution can be found in all the world’s major water bodies, for example, creating garbage patches in all of the world’s oceans and contaminating terrestrial ecosystems.
Plastics are usually classified by the chemical structure of the polymer’s backbone and side chains. Important groups classified in this way include acrylics, polyesters, silicones, polyurethanes, and halogenated plastics.
Plastics can be classified by the chemical process used in their synthesis, such as condensation, polyaddition, and cross-linking.
They can also be classified by their physical properties, including hardness, density, tensile strength, thermal resistance, and glass transition temperature.
Plastics can additionally be classified by their resistance and reactions to various substances and processes, such as exposure to organic solvents, oxidation, and ionizing radiation.
Other classifications of plastics are based on qualities relevant to manufacturing or product design for a particular purpose. Examples include thermoplastics, thermosets, conductive polymers, biodegradable plastics, engineering plastics, and elastomers.