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Facts About Plastics: Types of Plastics Explained

A Botany graduate, Nithya Venkat enjoys researching and writing about topics that interest her.

The word plastic is derived from the Greek word Plastikos, meaning to mold or form. Plastic was first developed as a replacement for ivory in the 1860s. Since then, plastic has become an essential part of all manufacturing industries.

Manufacturing industries use plastic in many areas of application because it is easy to bend and mold into different shapes.

Plastics are made from petrochemicals that are derived from fossil fuels such as coal, crude oil, and natural gas.

What are plastics?

Plastics are made of long chains of polymers. Polymers are made of single units of repeating monomers. The monomers are combined in different ways to produce different types of plastics.

To get a clear picture of plastics, it is important to understand the following terms -

Monomer - Monomer is the basic unit of a chemical substance that can be combined in different ways to form a more complex substance. The term mono means one.

Polymers - Polymers are long chains of monomers connected in different ways to form a complex substance. Poly means many.

Hydrocarbons - Hydrocarbons are organic compounds that can be found in crude oil and natural gas. They are made only of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

What is plastic?

Plastic is a material that is made of long chains of polymers. (Polymers are repeating units of monomers.) During the manufacture of plastics, monomers are combined in different ways to produce different types of plastics.

Polymers in plastics are made of long chains of hydrocarbon molecules. The carbon atoms present in the hydrocarbon molecules join to form the framework of the hydrocarbon molecule, and the hydrogen atoms act as links to other carbon atoms forming a continuous chain.

The chain of hydrocarbon molecules can be a single straight chain or branch off in different directions to form a more complex chain.

Polyethylene is an example of thermoplastic that is used in most industrial and commercial applications. Thermoplastic is a type of plastic that can be melted into a liquid and remolded as it cools down to become a solid.

The diagram below is an example of a polyethylene plastic -

Zig-Zag Structure of Polyethylene

Zig-Zag Structure of Polyethylene


Thermoplastics are polymers that can be melted and recast into different shapes. They can be melted and recast several times without losing much of their original properties.

Examples of Thermoplastics

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic that is used to manufacture sports equipment, Lego Blocks, and automobile parts.

Polycarbonate is a type of thermoplastic used to make Compact Discs, beverage bottles, food storage containers, eyeglass lenses, etc.

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Polyethylene is another thermoplastic that is used to make shampoo bottles, plastic grocery bags, and bulletproof vests. Thermoplastics can be recycled and reused.

Products Made From Thermoplastics

Products Made From Thermoplastics


Thermosets are also known as thermosetting plastics. Thye is synthetic materials that can form a three-dimensional network when chemically treated.

The first thermoset plastic called Bakelite was developed by Dr. Leo Baekeland in 1909. The advantage of thermoset plastics is that they retain their shape and properties at high temperatures.

The ability to retain the shape and original properties even at high temperatures make thermosets ideal for making things that are solid and durable.

Thermosets are used in the manufacture of electronic chips, fiber-reinforced composites, polymeric coatings. Thermosets cannot be recycled, remolded, or reshaped.

Plastic Products Made from Thermoset Plastics

Plastic Products Made from Thermoset Plastics

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Commercial use of PVC was first started by Waldo Semon in the 1920s while creating a synthetic replacement for natural rubber.

PVC plastics are thermoplastics that are made of 57% chlorine and 43% carbon. The production of PVCs is less dependent on fossil fuels because the chlorine used to make PVC is derived from industrial grade salt, and the carbon is derived from oil or gas.

PVC plastics are durable, light, strong, fire-resistant with low permeability, and high insulation properties. PVCs are used in the manufacture of building materials such as window and door frames, floor and wall coverings, roofing sheets, tunnel linings, swimming pools, and reservoirs.

PVC is also used for the following -

  • Pipings for water and sewerage transport and fittings and ducts for power and telecommunications.
  • Coatings for tarpaulins, rainwear, and corrugated metal sheets.
  • Insulation and sheathing for low voltage power supplies, telecommunications, appliances, and automotive applications.
  • Packaging for pharmaceuticals, food and confectionery, water and fruit juices, labels, and presentation trays.
  • Manufacture of medical products such as blood bags, transfusion tubes, and surgical gloves.
  • Manufacture of garden hoses, footwear, inflatable pools, and tents.

Commercial use of PVC first started by Waldo Semon in the 1920s while trying to create a synthetic replacement for natural rubber.

PVC plastics are thermoplastics that are made of 57 % chlorine and 43% carbon. The production of PVCs is less dependent on fossil fuels because the chlorine used to make PVC is derived from industrial grade salt, and the carbon is derived from oil or gas.

Polyurethane spray foam being applied for insulation

Polyurethane spray foam being applied for insulation


Polyurethane was discovered in 1930 by Professor Dr.Otto Bayer. Polyurethane is a durable, flexible, and resilient material that is manufactured from petrochemicals. Dr.Otto Bayer is known as the Father of the polyurethane industry.

Polyurethane is manufactured by combining two monomers – diisocyanate and diol or polyol through a chemical reaction. Polyurethane can be in the form of a liquid, foam, or solid, depending upon the monomers that are used to produce polyurethane.

Polyurethane is highly flexible, resistant to abrasion, and the high impact can withstand wear and tear, resistant to water, oil, and grease. It is highly resilient and is a good conductor of electricity—polyurethane bonds well with plastics, metals, and wood.

Even though polyurethane is made from fossil fuel, it helps to preserve the natural resources of the planet in the following ways -

  • Coating a product with polyurethane extends the life of the product, thereby reducing the need to produce new products frequently.
  • Polyurethane helps to insulate buildings. Insulation with polyurethane helps to decrease the consumption of gas, oil, and electricity.
  • Polyurethane foams used tin refrigerators to help to preserve food for a longer time.

Polyurethane can be recycled chemically by breaking them down into monomers and making new polyurethane or mechanically by using the polyurethane in its polymer form. It also helps to recycle other materials such as rubber and wood.

Polyurethane is made of petrochemicals, and it should be recycled to save valuable resources and energy.

PET bottles being recycled

PET bottles being recycled

Polyethylene terephthalate

PET is a short form for Polyethylene terephthalate. PET plastics were first synthesized by Dupont Chemists while they were conducting research to make new textile fibers. Still, the actual technology for the manufacture of these textiles was developed by Imperial Chemical Industries.

PET plastics are durable, can withstand high pressure, and do not burst open when falling. It has excellent barrier properties and helps to preserve the fizz in aerated drinks. PET products can be recycled and reused.

PET plastics are used in the manufacture of the following -

  1. Bottles for beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, mineral waters, carbonated drinks
  2. Bottles for cooking and salad oils, sauces, and dressings
  3. Wide-mouthed jars and tubs for jam, preserves, fruits, and dried foods
  4. Trays for pre-cooked meals that can be reheated and other PET products

PET products are made from crude oil derivatives and must be recycled to save the earth's resources.


Bioplastics can be bio-based, biodegradable, or both. The term bioplastic refers to plastics that meet one or both of the following two conditions-

  1. Bioplastics must be partially derived from renewable (plant-based) resources.
  2. Bioplastics can be degraded into water and carbon dioxide by naturally occurring microorganisms present in the environment. During this process, a little biomass is created.

Conventional plastics do not meet any of the conditions mentioned above.

Examples of Bioplastics

Polylactic acid (PLA), PolyCaproLactance (PLC), polyesteramide, PolyHydroxyButyrate-covalerate (PHBV) made from plants such as canola, soybean, corn, and potatoes. Bioplastics can also be made from wastes of the food industry.

The use of renewable resources to produce plastic helps to save fossil fuel and reduces the emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Bioplastics can be classified into two different types of plastics - bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics.

Bio-Based Plastics

Bio-based products are manufactured partly from biomass. The first bio-based plastic was Polyhydroxybutyrate (PBH), which was discovered in 1926 by Maurice Lemoigne, a French researcher.

Maurice Lemoigne discovered bio-based plastic while working with the bacterium Bacillus megaterium. At first, his discovery was not acknowledged by the world, but with the recent fossil fuel crisis, bio-based plastics have become an important topic for further research.

Bio-based plastics are extensively used in packaging industries.

Examples of biomass

Dead trees branches and leaves, tree stumps, branches, and leaves from yard clippings, wood chips. Industrial biomass is obtained from plants such as Miscanthus, Switch Grass, Hemp, Corn, Sugarcane, Bamboo, and trees such as Eucalyptus and Palm.

Biodegradble Plastics

Biodegradable plastics are environment-friendly plastics that can be broken down by microbes such as bacteria and fungi present in the environment.

According to the Biodegradable Plastic Institute, a biodegradable material is a material that breaks down under the right conditions by the microbes in the environment and use the broken down materials as a food source.

Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily biobased.

Plastics made from fossil fuels alone can be made biodegradable by adding chemical additives while manufacturing the plastics, making the plastic biodegradable and eco-friendly.

A biodegradable product can have non-biodegradable ingredients that do not decompose naturally or have materials recycled by curbside recycling programs.

Biodegradable plastics should not be thrown out into the environment because they take a long time to decompose in landfills due to lack of oxygen, humidity, and low temperatures.

Biodegradable plastics should be recycled through curbside recycling programs. Recycling programs collect biodegradable plastics to huge composting facilities where they decompose in a short time under controlled environments.

Biodegradable plastics are used for

  1. Food packaging – packaging that can be composted along with its contents when it has passed the expiry date
  2. Production of agricultural plastic sheeting that can be plowed into biodegradable mulch and seed films
  3. Medical- absorbable sutures, micro-devices containing medicine which break down inside the body
  4. Disposable plates, spoons, cups, forks

Cellophane is a 100% biodegradable material made from plants and tree cellulose. The very first time, cellophane was made by the French scientist in 1920.

Plastics and the Environment

Plastics have become a part of our everyday life. We use many items made of different types of plastics without fully realizing their impact on the environment.

Even though plastics have many uses, they have become a threat to the environment. The best solution would be to cut down on the use of plastics. Instead of recycling them, it is better to avoid using plastic items or reuse the ones that we already have.


© 2015 Nithya Venkat


Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on March 07, 2019:

Yes, we all have to do our part to recycle and save planet earth.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 06, 2019:

This was so interesting to read. We do our part to recycle as much as we can and reuse items as often as possible prior to recycling them. Plastics seem to be ever-present these days. Some of it is very useful and good, but when our oceans are being filled with plastic refuse, that is harmful and bad. We should all take a part in caring for our environment.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on June 23, 2018:

Thank you for reading and commenting, lesser the plastic the better for the environment around us.

Elena from London, UK on June 22, 2018:

I chose to read this because of the big issue around it, at the moment. Then there was the whale found in the ocean that had so many plastic bags in the system, it died. All these straws, plastic cups are really affecting the world. Thanks for the enlightenment about the different types of plastics and more.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on May 21, 2018:

Thank you, recycling will save our planet for our future generations.

Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on May 20, 2018:

Fantastic article. Here in France we are encouraged to recycle everything possible as we have our bins weighed. Also my father worked for ICI and was one of the developer of crimplene. As a young girl I had to help with wearer trials and looked less than cool in all the crimplene clothes I had to suffer!

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on December 16, 2016:

FlourishAnyway it is great that your area has started recycling all plastics, it will help save the environment around us and yes it would be great if we have a deposit system. It is so thoughtful of you to pick up litter that other people carelessly discard, wish they would clean up their act. Thank you for your visit and comment.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 16, 2016:

My area has finally started recycling all plastics (1-7) instead of just code 1 & 2 plastics. Previously, it was cost prohibitive to recycle the 3-7 because it had to be trucked several states away and actually was a losing venture financially. I pick up up a lot of other people's discarded litter while walking to recycle it. Makes me so frustrated that people cannot do the right thing. I sure wish we had a deposit system like they did with glass bottles in the old days!

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on December 11, 2016:

MartieCoetser thank you. I really wonder how life was before plastic was invented.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on December 11, 2016:

Vellur, this is a VERY interesting hub about plastic. Most of the things we use today are one or another form of plastic. Although I remember life-before-plastic, I can now hardly imagine life-after-plastic.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 19, 2016:

vespawolf am happy that you came to know about the different types of plastics through this hub. It is great that they recycle plastic in Peru, this helps to save the environment.

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on September 18, 2016:

Until reading this article, I knew nothing about different types of plastic. I thought plastic was plastic. I have read how difficult it is for plastic to disintegrate, often hundreds of years. Here in Peru, plastic containers are reused so there isn't so much waste.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on August 16, 2016:

AudreyHowitt thank you.

Audrey Howitt from California on August 13, 2016:

Just an excellent and well balanced article!

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on January 27, 2016:

aviannovice, I totally agree that we have gone overboard with our plastic creations. Animals do get killed by eating plastic and the ocean is full of it. Recycling does help but only to a certain extent. I have tried to showcase the good and the bad in this article. Thank you for sharing your views with us.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on January 26, 2016:

There are many good uses for plastics, but we have gone overboard a little in our creations. Sadly, there is a blob in the ocean that just sits there and collects more plastics. The Layman Albatross on Midway Island is having a hard time with this substance, as the chicks eat it, without knowing any better, and it slowly kills them, by blocking food passage. Even though plastics were created two centuries ago to replace ivory, it created a lot of problem for elephants, anyway.

This is a very good piece that shows a lot of structural makeup and the fact that plastic is excellent in plumbing usage. It has helped keep down the cost of gasoline with its usage in cars, too. Fortunately, much of this material can be recycled, so this helps somewhat with what appears in the landfill.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on January 08, 2016:

rajan jolly thank you for reading and leaving a valuable comment. It is necessary to curb the use of plastic as much as we can and save up on fossil fuel that is not going to last forever. Thank you for the vote up and share.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on January 08, 2016:

A very detailed and well written informative hub. Shows how we dependent we are on some form of plastic in our everyday life.

But most of all, it is necessary to curb their use, to not only prevent environmental pollution from the non biodegradable forms but to also conserve our fossil fuels which are irreplaceable.

Voted up and shared.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on December 24, 2015:

teaches12345 yes, product packaging is mostly in plastic that we cannot avoid. Thank you for your visit.

Dianna Mendez on December 23, 2015:

This is a great article on plastic and why we should try to avoid using it. We have switched to using glass dishes in our home for this reason. It is something we are trying to avoid buying but product packaging is almost always wrapped in it.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on December 10, 2015:

ChitrangadaSharan thank you and yes it is difficult to do away with plastics but we must be careful how we use and dispose of them.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on December 10, 2015:

This is an excellent hub about plastics and so informative ! You covered the details at such a great length and I am much informed about the use of plastics now. Although it is difficult to do away with plastics nowadays but we must be careful about the type we are using and minimise it's use as much as is possible.

Thank you for this useful and well researched hub!

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on December 07, 2015:

ladyguitarpicker plastic is harmful and pollutes the environment. It is great that you pick up the plastic bottles from the beach.

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on December 06, 2015:

I think I found some interesting information about plastic. I get tired of picking up plastic bottles on the beach. I like plastic,but it can be very harmful.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 24, 2015:

FlourishAnyway thank you.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 23, 2015:

Excellent and very thorough educational hub on plastics. I'm excited about the move to biodegradable plastics and glad to see more recycling. Sharing.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 17, 2015:

always exploring thank you, and yes people should be more careful about how they dispose of plastics.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on November 16, 2015:

Interesting and educational hub. What would we do without plastics? I guess we would do ok. Plastics in our Wabash river are killing all kinds of critters. If people would be more careful and not throw plastic, bottles and you name it into our water would help a lot. Thank you for a very useful hub.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 16, 2015:

AliciaC thank you, identifying types of plastics helps to recycle them.

DDE thank you for your visit and share.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 16, 2015:

I did not think much of plastics. You have enlightened me in a well-informed hub. A topic everyone should read. Thank you for this hub. TWEETED!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 15, 2015:

Thanks for sharing so many details about plastic, Vellur. The different types of plastic are so common today. It's important that people know about them.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 14, 2015:

BlossomSB yes it is horrendous to see the amount of plastic items that wash up on the beaches. Thank you for stopping by.

Glenn Stok, recycling is relatively new and yes many communities do not recycle. Plastic is getting into our system in many ways, we have to make the right choices and recycle plastic or reduce the usage of plastic. Thank you for your visit.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on November 14, 2015:

Very educational hub on plastics. I didn't know that some forms of plastics go back almost 100 years.

Recycling is such a new thing, and there are still many communities that don't recycle plastic. I read recently that humans have plastic in our blood because we get it through the foods we eat and drink that are stored in plastic containers.

We also get it in our system by eating fish. Fish think the prices of plastic they find in the ocean is plankton and they eat it. Then we eat the fish. There is a lot of plastic in the Pacific Ocean since there are a lot of people who don't care, and they just throw it out. There's enough there to make an island.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on November 14, 2015:

Although we use plastic in so many areas of our life, I'm always a bit dubious as to whether it is good for us, and it's certainly not good for the environment. Especially in third world countries, the amount of plastic items that wash up on the beaches is horrendous, and it's not so good in our own countries, either, except that we clean it up better. Thanks for an interesting article.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 14, 2015:

Frank Atanacio thank you and wishing you a Happy Prosperous New Year.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on November 13, 2015:

First Happy New Year.. secondly.. thanks so much for this chemistry, lesson 101.. actually really never understood the fabric of plastic.. but now I feel you pointed me into the right direction.. thanks my friend

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 13, 2015:

Reynold Jay thank you.

Ercidierker thank you.

Audrey (vocalcoach) thank you for your visit and share.

billybuc yes it is difficult to eliminate plastics totally but we can try to cut down on the use of plastic items.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 13, 2015:

We have tried to eliminate plastics from our personal lives but truthfully, in today's world, it is practically impossible to do so. We have decided the best we can do it be mindful and try to lessen the use. Great information here, my friend.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on November 13, 2015:

You've brought a whole new meaning to the word 'informative' my friend. So interesting! You've managed to cover it all. I'm particular about the plastics I use so thank you for teaching me more about this subject. Sharing.


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 13, 2015:

cool stuff. We are cutting back even further. Great to know the ins and outs, thank you much.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on November 13, 2015:

Holy moly, Batman--This is everything one could ever hope to know. I am convinced--no earting and drinking from plastic cups. Well done.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on November 13, 2015:

Jackie Lynnley thank you for your visit. Plastics are useful and harmful at the same time. As you say, it is better to avoid eating and drinking from plastics. Thank you for the share too.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 13, 2015:

Wow; never read so much about plastic. You covered it well!

My dad always had suspicions of plastic and would never eat or drink from it. Strange how right on he may have been especially for so long ago as we learn today of only using certain grades.

Hard to live without it though, it certainly has been a good thing in plumbing and probably dozens more I am not thinking of. I choose to though to not eat or drink from it, too.


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