What is Polyethylene Foam?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Polyethylene is a class of thermoplastics practically ubiquitous in consumer products. In its foam form, polyethylene is used in packaging, vibration dampening and insulation, as a barrier or buoyancy component, or as material for cushioning. It is most frequently seen as a packaging material.

Polyethylene foam may be used for insulation purposes.
Polyethylene foam may be used for insulation purposes.

Sixty million tons of polyethylene is produced worldwide each year, which is even more than it sounds like when you consider its low density. In the UK, polyethylene is known as polythene. Worldwide, the material is sometimes abbreviated as PE.

Polyethylene is among the cheapest of synthetic materials, making it in high demand for packaging, bottling and other similar uses.
Polyethylene is among the cheapest of synthetic materials, making it in high demand for packaging, bottling and other similar uses.

Polyethylene is produced through the polymerization of ethylene. Like other polymers, polyethylene is made up of huge chains of ethylene and has a molecular weight in the millions. These chains stick together through weak Van der Waals forces, meaning the material can be ripped apart by human hands. Polyethylene with different densities or material properties is created by using different catalysts during the polymerization process. For example, HDPE (high density polyethylene) is produced with the catalyst chromium, which causes the molecular chains to branch less and therefore possess a higher density.

Polyethylene is buoyant, making it popular for nautical uses. Most types of polyethylene are non-abrasive; serve as a thermal insulator; are inert to water, grease and solvents at typical temperatures; are CFC-free and ozone friendly, recyclable, odorless, and very lightweight. Many types of polyethylene are approved for use in the food industry.

Found in all types of packaging, polyethylene is used to wrap furniture, computer components, electronics, sporting goods, plants, frozen foods, clothing, bowling balls, signs, metal products, and more. It comes in forms designed to minimize static or maximize thermal insulation, among dozens of other variants. The material is impervious to bacteria and mold and is tear-resistant. Polyethylene is among the cheapest of artificially fabricated materials, but not as cheap as most raw materials, as the polymerization process consumes energy. In addition, distribution costs are normal because polyethylene cannot be compressed much for shipping.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


We use PE foam to wrap our wooden frame long stick. I would like to know, is there any chemical or any other things can spoil/destroy the PE Foam? Please advise.


How can you destroy or get rid of left over PE foam, that is an environmentally safe way?


Polyethylene is usually made on an extruder. Many companies make machines for this purpose.

To get the foam off the metal just use a heat gun as the melting point for foam is much lower than the steel you have

No petroleum in PE foams. There are many differences in PP vs PE. It really depends on your application.


looking for a way to inject polyethylene foam into a (hot) roto molded part. I would think this would need to be done with the molten polyethylene and a blowing agent at the same time.


does anyone know how to print onto the foam? I want to put my son's name onto his noodle so the ink doesn't come off in the pool.


I worked with the foam and I have now many problems to clean my hands. Is there any advice?


Post #6 - PP foam is more rigid and more prone to damage by impact. PE foam is more "spongy" than PP. If you put a nail in PE, it will stay, with PP the nail will fall out because it leaves a hole.

If you are joining pieces, PP is also harder to work with since there is no give or flex. Surfaces to be joined must be perfectly mated.


We are looking into developing a PE foam based product but have been asked to look into PP foam as it is simply 'better'. With respect to R-value, durability, compression, weight, and flexibility... is it really better?

Many thanks.


I would like to know more information about companies that manufacture the machines used to make Polyethylene Foam. It would be preferable if those companies are located in Asia. -Diego


A pack of auto spare parts we received were packed in a box full of polyethylene foam. Now, the problem is, that all the foam is joined to the parts, and it is not coming out, even by force. I need a name of a chemical which can melt, or destroy those foams, without harming the steel.


Is there any petroleum in polyethylene? We deal with oxygen and can't have any petroleum based products near the O2.

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