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What is the Plastics Industry?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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The plastics industry is a worldwide market involved in the manufacture or use of plastics. Plastics are chemical compounds valued for being lightweight, durable, and inexpensive to produce and easily shaped into multiple possible forms. Thousands of ordinary and specialized items are produced from plastics, also called polymers. Plastic products thus appear almost everywhere on Earth, even though the plastics industry has only existed since the early 20th century.

In ancient times, humans used so-called natural polymers such as rubber, hardened tree sap, or animal horn to create specialized objects that could not be made of metal, stone, or other common raw materials. These special objects included window coverings, food and drinking vessels, and jewelry. In the 1800s and 1900s, scientists unveiled the first synthetic polymers, malleable substances produced from coal, petroleum, or cellulose. These polymers, or plastics, soon found use as cooking vessels, electrical insulators, and housing materials. By the end of the 1920s, the plastics industry was creating a new standard for mass-produced goods that would shape the rest of the 20th century.

In modern times, plastics include numerous synthetic substances, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyester, and polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam™. Plastics can be shaped into different forms, weights, and strengths for a wide variety of uses. Numerous products or product parts are made from the various plastics, including auto and machine parts, insulation and cushioning material, and even shoes and clothing. The plastics industry has thus become ubiquitous in most developed countries.

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There are some environmental concerns over the widespread use of plastic. Since plastic is cheap to create, much plastic packaging is meant to be used once and then discarded. This increases waste, and unlike natural materials such as paper, most plastics do not biodegrade, or dissolve over time into harmless natural materials. Some plastics can also create dioxin, a deadly chemical compound, when burned. Many communities and businesses support plastic recycling programs to lessen the environmental impact of the plastics industry.

The term plastic in common English usage has come to symbolize or describe anything artificial or anything that has an appealing surface but no lasting value. The word plastic is also used as shorthand to describe items made of plastic, such as credit cards or shopping bags. In a famous early scene in the 1967 Dustin Hoffman film The Graduate, an older man offers advice to the disillusioned title character. His single word of advice, “Plastics,” is meant to describe the plastics industry as a promising employer, but instead represents the empty suburban landscape the Hoffman character wishes to escape.

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