Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. Crude oil is a complex mixture of thousands of compounds and needs to be processed before it can be used. The production of plastics begins with the distillation of crude oil in an oil refinery. This separates the heavy crude oil into groups of lighter components, called fractions. Each fraction is a mixture of hydrocarbon chains (chemical compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen), which differ in terms of the size and structure of their molecules. One of these fractions, naphtha, is the crucial compound for the production of plastics.
Two main processes are used to produce plastics – polymerisation and polycondensation – and they both require specific catalysts. In a polymerisation reactor, monomers such as ethylene and propylene are linked together to form long polymer chains. Each polymer has its own properties, structure and size depending on the various types of basic monomers used.
There are many different types of plastics, and they can be grouped into two main polymer families:
- Thermoplastics (which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling).
- Thermosets (which never soften once they have been moulded).
|☆Examples of Thermoplastics☆
•Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
•Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
•Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
•Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
•Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)
|☆Examples of Thermosets☆
•Unsaturated polyester resins (UP)
Plastics comprise a large family of materials which can be classified into various types. In this section of the website, you can learn more about the various types of plastic and their particular applications and benefits.
The building and construction sector in Europe consumes around 10 million tonnes of plastics each year (20% of total European plastics consumption), making it the second largest application for plastics after packaging. Plastic pipes, for instance, account for the majority of all new pipe installations, with well over 50% of the annual tonnage. And this share continues to grow.
Although plastics are not always visible in buildings, they are used in a wide and growing range of applications, including insulation, piping, window frames and interior design. This growth is mainly due to plastics’ unique features, which include:
Durability and resistance to corrosion
The durability of plastics makes them ideal for applications such as window frames and pipes. Furthermore, their anti-corrosion properties provide them with an impressive life span, extending to more than 100 years for plastic pipes and 50 years for underground and exterior cables.
Plastics provide effective insulation from cold and heat, prevent energy leakage, and allow households to save energy while also reducing noise pollution.
Plastics components often cost less than traditional materials to produce and install, even in custom-made forms.
Plastic pipes are ideal for the safe and hygienic transportation of water. Plastics are also the ideal choice for hygienic household surfaces and floor coverings as they are easy to clean and impermeable.
Plastics save resources through their cost-effective production, ease of installation and durability. In a typical house, it is estimated that the amount of energy used to produce its plastic insulation products is recouped after only one year of use. Moreover, these plastics can be re-used, recycled or converted into energy.
Plastics inspire architects to create buildings with innovative designs, features and dimensions. Moreover, the rapid pace of innovation in plastics helps to continually reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of buildings.
Easy to install, use and maintain
Plastics are easy to install, operate and maintain thanks to their light weight. In fact, maintenance can often be dispensed with. Furthermore, the flexibility of plastics means that plastic pipes can cope with soil movements.
Many plastic products in the building and construction sector are valued because of their fire resistance. Smoke detectors, alarms and automated firefighting systems are largely made of plastics and the success of PVC, the leading polymer in the sector, is largely due to its intrinsic fire safety characteristics. Furthermore, the Fire Safety Engineering approach – which assesses the fire behaviour of a product in different scenarios in a defined environment – is expected to be introduced into regulations, stimulating the further use of plastics to improve fire safety.
Overview of Plastic Waste from Building and Construction by Polymer and by Recycling, Energy Recovery and Disposal (click on the image to view the document in PDF)
“The figures displayed on the table are for 2014. In 2016, total plastic waste generation from building and construction was 1569 kt. Mechanical recycling was 25.6 % and energy recovery, 46.2 %, bring the total recovery rate to 71.7 %.”
When developing transport solutions, designers strive to find the ideal balance between high material performance, competitive pricing, style, comfort, safety, fuel efficiency and minimal environmental impact. The sustainable solution is reflected by an optimal balance of all these parameters and requirements.
Innovative plastics are a key contributor, because:
- Plastic components weigh 50 percent less than similar components made from other materials, which means a 25 to 35% improvement in fuel economy.
- For every kilogram lost, your car will emit 20 kilograms less of carbon dioxide over its operating life.
- Plastics offer lightweight solutions that fulfil essential safety requirements such as fire safety.
Airplanes are a good example of how plastics and design innovation are connected in a highly modern and material challenged application. Since the 70s, the use of plastics in airplanes has grown from 4 to around 50%.
In the automotive industry, plastics allow for energy absorption, weight reduction and innovative design, while contributing to passenger safety. Features such as shock absorption for bumpers, suppression of explosion risks in fuel tanks, seat belts, airbags and other life-saving accessories such as durable plastic safety seats to protect young passengers make plastics the safest material for automotive applications.
Plastics are also in the vanguard of sustainable innovation, with the average car containing 120 kilograms of plastics (around 15% of its total weight). Modern concept cars are a perfect example of how innovation made possible with plastics also brings environmental benefits. The car features a range of high-quality thermoplastics that bring design flexibility, but more importantly, the light weight of these plastics means that the car uses an average of 3.3 litres of fuel every 100km and emits only 86g of CO2 per kilometre!
From simple cables and household appliances to smartphones, many of the latest devices created in the Electrical & Electronic sector capitalize on new generation plastics. Thanks to its manifoldness and versatility, plastics contribute significantly to innovation in the electrical and electronic sector.
Designers of electrical and electronic applications rely on plastics because of their unique features.
Polymers can help store energy for longer. LCD (liquid crystal display) flat screens consume less power than traditional cathode ray tube devices and have replaced them in today’s homes.
The design flexibility of plastics also contributes to invisible resource efficiencies inside household equipment. For example, the plastic lye container in a washing machine reduces water consumption and enables class-leading A+++ eco-efficiency ratings.
In small appliances such as smartphones, also plastics is contributing to today’s light handsets and smaller, lighter headsets.
Electrical and mechanical resistance
Plastics’ ability to isolate electrical current and resist mechanical shocks and stress, combined with their flexibility and durability, makes them ideal for vital applications such as safe, reliable and efficient power supplies.
Wherever there is a risk of an electrical fire, plastic flame retardants can be used to inhibit ignition and are therefore required by legislation and standards.
For years, the growing use of plastics in agriculture has helped farmers increase crop production, improve food quality and reduce the ecological footprint of their activity. Not only do plastics allow for vegetables and fruits to be grown whatever the season, but these products are usually of better quality than those grown in an open field.
A wide range of plastics are used in agriculture, including, polyolefin, polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Ethylene-Vinyl Accetate Copolymer (EVA), Poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) and, in less frequently, Polycarbonate (PC) and poly-methyl-methacrylate (PMMA). These plastics provide:
Innovative and sustainable solutions: Thanks to the use of different plastics in agriculture, water can be saved and crops can even be planted in deserted areas. Plastic irrigation pipes prevent waste of water and nutrients, rain water can be retained in reservoirs built with plastics, and the use of pesticides can be reduced by keeping crops in a closed space such as a greenhouse or, for mulching, under a plastic film. Moreover, the emissions of pesticides in the atmosphere will be reduced as they will remain fixed on the plastic cover.
Recycling and recovery opportunities: At the end of their life cycle, agricultural plastics such as greenhouse covers can be recycled. Once retrieved from the fields, plastics are usually washed to eliminate sand, herbs and pesticides, before being grinded and extruded into pellets. The material can then be used again in the manufacturing of articles such as outdoor furniture. When recycling is not viable, energy can be obtained from agricultural plastic waste in a process called co-combustion.
Greenhouses are like intensive-care units. Thanks to them, plants are exposed to the sunlight and can grow in ideal conditions according to their physiological properties. The use of greenhouses indeed provides farmers with the possibility to create the appropriate environmental conditions that plants require for faster and safer growth, to avoid extreme temperatures and protect crops from harmful external conditions.
Tunnels have the same features as greenhouses, except for their complexity and their height. Crops that are the most commonly cultivated in tunnels are asparagus, watermelon, etc.
Mulching or covering the ground with plastic film helps maintain humidity as evaporation is reduced. It also improves thermal conditions for the plant’s roots, avoids contact between the plant and the ground and prevents weed from growing and competing with for water and nutrients.
Plastic reservoirs and irrigation systems
When combined, plastic reservoirs and plastic irrigation systems make an essential contribution to water management. Water can be stored in dams covered with plastics materials to avoid leaking and distributed via pipes, drop irrigation systems and systems for water circulation.
This application, which was developed to store animals’ grains and straw during the winter, is another proof of the value of plastics. Plastic films used to store silage are resistant and the content canbe stored for years.
Other plastic applications
Other plastic applicationsinclude boxes; crates for crop collecting, handling and transport; components for irrigation systems like fittings and spray cones; tapes that help hold the aerial parts of the plants in the greenhouses, or even nets to shade the interior of the greenhouses or reduce the effects of hail.
The EU’s commitment to an annual reduction in CO2 emissions of 780 million tonnes by 2020 will require decision-makers, industry and consumers to work hand-in-hand towards greener living standards. The plastics industry is committed to making a major contribution to this ambitious goal in the following ways:
In buildings, plastics provide effective insulation from cold and heat and prevent air leakages. Plastic insulation materials consume approximately 16% less energy and emit 9% less greenhouse gases than alternative materials. Across their entire life cycle, plastic insulation boards save 150 times the energy used for their manufacture.
Wind turbines’ rotor blades and photovoltaic panels contain large amounts of plastics, helping to achieve the efficient production of renewable energy. In these two applications, plastics save 140 times and 340 times the emissions produced during their production respectively.
Preventing food losses
Plastic food packaging delivers efficient protection, reduces food waste and extends shelf life, thereby saving energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic packaging for meat, for instance, can extend its shelf life by three to six days, or even longer. Considering that producing one kilo of beef leads to emissions equivalent to three hours of driving, this extended shelf life offers a substantial environmental benefit.
Plastics enable lightweight packaging and vehicle weight reductions that combine to result in less CO2 emissions linked to transportation. Plastic packaging weighs only one quarter of comparable alternative packaging solutions, resulting in improved fuel economy and reduced emissions.
Reduced greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing
Plastic products typically require less energy to produce than alternative materials, especially in applications such as transport, building and construction, packaging and electronic devices. If plastics were to be replaced by alternative materials, their lifecycle energy consumption would be increased by around 57% and greenhouse gas emissions would rise by 61%.
These are just some of the ways in which plastics reduce energy costs and consumption, as well as the emissions of greenhouse gases.