A plastic is a material that can change its shape, so many things can be made of plastic. There are many types of plastic. Some can be shaped only when they are freshly made; then they become hard. Others can be changed by heating them up or even by melting them.
Most plastics are man-made; they do not occur in nature. Most are made from petroleum or natural gas. The process of making plastics is usually quite complicated. Most of the materials that are called plastic are polymers. Polymers are long chains of atoms bonded to one another.
People experimented with plastics based on natural polymers for a very long time. Alexander Parkes, an English inventor (1813-1890), created the earliest form of plastic in 1855. It was hard but flexible and transparent, and he called it "Parkesine."
Plastic is filling up the landfills and sometimes if you burn it, it releases toxic fumes. If we do not recycle, it becomes waste.
Plastics are mostly petrochemicals, made from petroleum, a type of oil. Engineers refine the petroleum which goes through a heating process. It develops ethylene and propylene, which are the chemical building blocks for many plastics. These chemicals are then combined with other chemicals to produce a polymer.
Well-known plastics, and their use
- Polyamide (usually called nylon) – Women's stockings.
- Polycarbonate – bulletproof glass, compact discs, DVDs.
- Polyethylene – tubes made of plastic
- Polyethylene terephtalate (called PET when used for bottles, and polyester when used for clothes or other materials)
- Polyvinyl chloride (called PVC, usually). Used for insulation of electric wires, but also for pipes and road signs.
Molded plastic food replicas on display outside a restaurant in Japan
Plastic Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.