Plastic: What Is It, How It’s Made & More

Through a process called cracking, crude oil is converted to plastic with the help of various chemicals and additives.

Definition of Plastic
Definition of Plastic

You likely use plastic every day in a myriad of forms – from the keys on your desktop computer to the carpet under your feet to the spoons used to whip up dinner, plastics are everywhere! But have you ever thought about what plastic really is and how it’s made?

What is plastic made of?

Plastics are human-made, synthetic polymers made from long chains of carbon and other elements. They are derived from crude oil and natural gas through a process called cracking that converts them to hydrocarbon monomers like ethylene, propylene, styrene, vinyl chloride, and ethylene glycol.

These monomers are then mixed with other chemicals to produce a desired finished product – plasticizers like phthalates to make PVC soft, butadiene to make plastic #7 tough, and many others. Additional additives include bacteria, heat, light, color, and friction. To create the desired form and shape of the plastic, the materials is finally cast, spun, molded, fabricated, extruded, or applied as a coating on another material.

Where is plastic commonly found?

Plastics are everywhere in our lives – our kitchens, our vehicles, our purses, and even inside our own bodies. Check out the many ways plastics can be found all around you:

  • Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): Cases for electronics such as computers and monitors.
  • High impact polystyrene (HIPS): Vending machine cups, food packaging, refrigerator liners.
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic #2: Beverage containers, cleaning product containers, shopping bags, cabling, pipes, wood composites.
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic #4: Produce bags, flexible food containers, shrink wrap, lining for cardboard, wire coverings, toys.
  • Melamine formaldehyde (MF): Cookware and dishes, moldings, toys.
  • Phenolics (PF) or (phenol formaldehydes): Insulation for electronics, lamination for paper, molding alternatives.
  • Polyamides (PA): Nylon materials, car moldings, fishing line, toothbrushes.
  • Polycarbonate (PC) plastic #7: Beverage bottles, DVDs and CDs, eyeglasses, traffic lights, lenses.
  • Polyester (PES): Textiles.
  • Polyetheretherketone (PEEK): Medical implants, aerospace parts.
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic #1: Beverage bottles, food film, microwaveable packages.
  • Polylactic acid (PLA): Biodegradable beverage bottles and dishes.
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA): Light diffusers for vehicles, contact lenses, Plexiglas.
  • Polypropylene (PP) plastic #5: Large and small appliances, food containers, auto parts, pipes.
  • Polystyrene (PS) plastic #6 :Foam products, food containers, CD and DVD cases, plates and cups.
  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE): Coatings for fry pans (Teflon) and water slides.
  • Polyurethanes (PU): Foam products for furniture and coatings.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic #3: Toys, pipes, shower curtains, flooring, windows, food films.
  • Urea-formaldehyde (UF): Adhesives for wood, casing for electrical switches.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Plastic is a human-made, synthetic polymer derived from crude oil and natural gas through a process called cracking, which converts the oil or gas into hydrocarbon monomers like ethylene, propylene, styrene, vinyl chloride, and ethylene glycol.

More than 99% of plastic is made using fossil fuels such as crude oil and natural gas, while the remaining 1% is made using renewable sources such as cellulose.