What is Plastic?

Plastic is everywhere.  Everywhere you look you will find it, and in more than one way plastic has helped our lives by making it easier, cleaner, safer, and more enjoyable.  In the things we use every day you will find it; clothes, cars, toys, stationeries, shoes, etc.  So what is plastic? A chemists will tell you they are basically polymers, usually synthetic - meaning they are made by humans.

Plastic is the general term to a wide range of artificial or semi-artificial materials used in a huge, and growing, range of applications.  Just like wool, paper or wood, plastic is organic.  The raw materials used to produce it are natural products like cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil.  Plastic is extremely versatile as it can be molded into various different shapes and forms and is fairly durable.  That is why it is used to produce many different things we use like boxes, bottles, plates, tables, etc.  This is also the reason why plastic got its name.  The world ‘plastic’ originates from the Greek word ‘plastikos’ which means ‘capable of being shaped or molded’, and ‘plastos’ which means molded. 

Due to its low cost, versatility, and how easy it is to be produced, it is used in almost any products you can find; from something as simple as a paperclip to more sophisticated things like spaceships. Plastic has replaced more tradition materials like wood, as the primary material for many products.  Unlike wood, plastic can be even more durable and be produced in vast amounts.

Benefits of Plastics

There is a reason why plastic is everywhere. Since its discovery, it has affected our lives in numerous ways.  The use of it has made modern life much more enjoyable and convenient.  Its ability to adapt and change has made it an important material.  Every day we use something that makes our lives easier and that something is made of plastic; toothbrushes, eating utensils, cars, computers, TV, phones, etc, all these things that we sometimes take for granted are made or contains an amount of plastic.  Without plastic, we might not have these items, and without these items, our lives might be very different.  In fact plastic is so important, it accounts for $373 billion to the US economy every year. 

The plastic industry is third largest manufacturing industry in the US, employing almost 900,000 American workers.  Other areas that it offer benefits to include: food, health care, shelters, transportations, fashion, entertainment and communication, and sports.


The use of plastic has improved overall food production and preservation processes.  During production, plastics are used in various stages to make sure the process is efficient and clean. For example, gloves made from plastics are usually worn by workers to keep things hygienic when they are touching the food.  Or convey belts, also made from plastics, keeps the production process efficient as the food can be transported from one section to another in a short manner of time.  When production is complete and the food needs to be moved from the factory to different distributors, plastics are used in refrigerated trunks to keep the food at the appropriate temperature. 

A lot of the foods today are kept in plastic containers.  These containers or packaging helps preserve the food for longer periods of time.  In some cases, the containers and can even help tell when food has gone wrong by changing its color caused by chemical reactions from the plastic container mixing with the food. 

Plastic food containers
Plastic containers storing food in refrigerators

Health Care

Plastic has been used in the medical industry for over 40 years now.  It has helped cut medial costs, and also reduce infectious diseases.  It has revolutionized the field of medicine making it safer for patients, and simpler procedures for doctors.   For patients, because plastic is so versatile, it makes lives easier for those in need.  Using plastic to make something as simple as eyeglasses has made it easier for those who need them because of its light weight.  More complicated things like hip or knee replacements also uses some form of plastic.  For doctors, plastics have made operations and procedures safer and easier.  They wear plastic gloves to keep the sterile atmosphere of hospitals or operation rooms.  They use disposable syringes and other plastic equipment to reduce infections and other possible transmittable diseases.   Plastic has also even made it possible for smaller and affordable medical equipment that can be used at home for those who need them.   While there have been concerns about plastic used in the medical industry because they are not bio-degradable, the amount of benefits it has provided to health care is just too large for it to be replaced.


Plastic is used everywhere at home, and again, it has helped make lives much easier and convenient.  Think about all the wires, cables, and appliances at home.  Even things you don’t see like pipes are made of plastic.  One reason why it is used so much in shelters is because of its thermal insulation.  You will find a lot of plastic used in the ceiling and walls of houses.  This helps keep the house at a desired temperature and is extremely helpful during winter times. 


Light in weight, but still durable – two essential elements when it comes to the plastic used in vehicles.  Lighter vehicles mean less fuel consumption, so you save more money.  It is light, but just as durable, which is important because you want to have a light weight car to save money but it should still be safe to drive in.  Plastic is almost used in every part of a car, from door panels, to seat cushions, arm rests to instrument panels, and even airbags. Recently, carbon fiber has been used a lot to build automobiles and in other transportations. Although it is expensive to produce, carbon fiber is an extremely strong material that is very light in weight so therefore is very commonly used in situations where there needs to be a high strength-to-weight ratio, like sports care and even space shuttles.

BMW using carbon fiber to build cars
Car manufacturers, like BMW, using carbon fiber to build cars

Fashion and Clothing

Nylons, polyesters, and spandex are all plastic.  These fashion textiles have changed the fashion industry in huge ways.  Clothing made from these materials are light weight, stretchable, breathable and waterproof.   A lot of sporting attires are made from these materials because of those factors, but recently they have all been used in clothing that are fashionable as well.  For example rain boats have recently become a new fashion thing and they are typically made from a type of plastic.

Entertainment and Communications

Without plastic, there is a chance that you wouldn't even be reading about this right now on your monitors. Plastic is used in almost anything that has to do with computers and any of the new 'technologies' we use today. Your monitors, keyboards, mouses, computer casing, laptops, etc., all are related to plastic. The smartphones you're using has plastic in it, whether it's the touch sceen, or something as simple as the case. Even things like CD and DVD for music or video games are made with plastic. Without it, these product we use could actually be very expensive to produce or won't even exist. Plastic has given designers and manufacturers great flexibility in creating excellent products that are innovative and most importantly affordable to the vast majority of people.


A lot of sport equipment contains plastic in them, for example like helmets, mouth guards, bats, gloves, different balls, shoes, etc.  Using it in these equipment not only gives athletes the ability to perform better, but also protects them (again, like with automobiles, light weight but also strong enough for protection).  Think about helmets that footballers use. They can’t be too heavy as it will impede the athlete’s mobility, but yet must be strong enough to protect them from any heavy impact.  Safely should always come first when we talk about sports, whether it is at a professional or amateur and recreation level so the use of plastic has created a much safer environment for sports and yet at the same time also improve an athlete’s performance ability.   Even something like a playing surface can be made with plastic, like synthetic grass which is now a very common surface used by stadiums to offer a playing surface that resembles the natural grass. 

Plastic synthetic grass
Synthetic grass made from plastic for artifical playings surfaces

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