While the word "polymer" is often used as a synonym for plastic, the truth is that polymers are a large group of natural and synthetic materials, encompassing everything from shellac to PVC. Plastics are simply one form of polymer. Natural polymers include rubber and amber, while the range of synthetic polymers is wide and includes things like nylon, silicone, Bakelite, neoprene and polystyrene.
The first synthetic polymer was Bakelite, created in 1907 by chemist Leo Baekeland [source: American Chemical Society]. Until other plastics were developed, Bakelite was used to produce everything from cable insulation to jewelry. Since then, manufacturers have used polymers in the creation of a variety of products, from adhesives and lubricants to implantable devices like orthopedic plates, artificial joints and heart valves. Polymers can also be used in the production of nonplastic objects, such as silicone and paper. They're a large part of our everyday lives and can be found in hundreds of different products. Read on to learn about 10 common polymer-based items.
10: Pantyhose and Parachutes
What do pantyhose and parachutes have in common? They both contain polyamide as a base material. You probably know polyamide better under its trade name -- nylon. This is also the same type of polymer used to make ropes, swimwear and boat sails.
Nylon's first commercial use was in the production of toothbrush bristles in 1938. Toothbrushes had previously been made using coarse boar hairs [source: Everyday Mysteries]. Since then, nylon has made its way into hundreds of different products. Polyamide is especially useful, because it's not only strong and durable, but it's also moisture resistant. Polyamide has an ample temperature resistance, too, making it ideal for use in engineering components and packaging. You can find nylon as a component of bottles, solvents and food packaging, as well.
Teflon® and other nonstick cookware and cooking utensils are made using polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE for short. PTFE is a waxy, thermally stable material that's known for being tough, corrosion resistant and nonflammable. It can resist temperatures of up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius), which makes it ideal not only in the production of cooking products, but also as a cable insulator and sealant [source: Plastomer Technologies]. PTFE generates no smoke when exposed to high temperatures, a great asset in the kitchen.
A porous form of PTFE is the base material of Gore-Tex®, a waterproof fabric used to make jackets, windbreakers and backpacks. Gore-Tex® is highly breathable, so it's become a popular material for sports uniforms and exercise gear.
8: Liquid-absorbing Crystals
Liquid-absorbing crystals, or super-absorbent polymers, are clear crystals that can absorb several times their weight in water. Their most popular application is as filler for disposable diapers, but they're also used in humidors and first-aid packs, and as fire retardants and drink chillers.
Liquid-absorbing crystals are particularly useful in gardening and landscaping. Because they retain water, they can reduce the need for watering by up to 80 percent [source: Steve Spangler Science]. Gardeners can mix the crystals with soil, and they'll absorb water and release it as the plants need it. As it rains or you water the soil, the crystals will expand to retain water again, continuing the cycle.
7: Takeout Containers
Despite their different looks and feels, Styrofoam® cups, grocery store meat trays and disposable cutlery are all basically the same product. These items are all made from polystyrene, a plastic with limited flexibility that's also used to make DVD cases, disposable razors and refrigerator insulation. Polystyrene is one of the polymers that can be recycled in most of its forms. To find items that contain polystyrene, look for the recycling No. 6 on containers and products.
Probably the best known form of polystyrene is foam. It's often seen as the base material for packing peanuts, Styrofoam® cups, takeout food containers, craft models and more.
Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is probably the best-known polymer in existence. It's also the most widely used. From peanut butter jars to soft drink bottles to milk containers, PET can be found in pretty much any container in your refrigerator. This material is the most recyclable of all plastics, although not in the way that most people imagine. PET bottles collected for recycling never come back into the market as bottles. Instead, the bottles are separated according to color, then crushed and shredded. After that, the pieces are melted and molded into other plastic products, which can include anything from toys to sleeping bag filler.
5: Spandex Clothing Fiber
Polyurethane is a quick-drying, highly elastic polymer used to make apparel that stretches. Spandex clothing fiber, like Lycra®, is made of polyurethane and is used in a number of clothing items, including bathing suits, exercise clothing, leggings, skinny jeans, socks and wetsuits. Even bra straps and disposable diapers are made using spandex polymers.
Spandex is also used to make compression items, like support hose, and foundation garments, like control bodysuits, corsets, control briefs and girdles. It's also the main component of sports uniforms, including wrestling singlets, cycling shorts, rowing unisuits, and ski pants and jackets.
4: Construction and Remodeling
Polyolefin, also known as polyalkene, is widely used in the construction industry. Everything from patio furniture, artificial grass and outdoor rugs to shower curtains and carpet backing contain polyolefin, and it even makes up the weather stripping you use in your windows. Polyolefin is also used in the production of textiles, because it has a unique feature: It can be melted and turned into a yarnlike fiber [source: EATP]. That makes this polymer useful in the production of mattress covers, lining fabrics and upholstery.
Other common items that contain polyolefin include insulated socks, disposable hospital garments, rope and nets, woven sacks and bags, and disposable diapers.
Polycarbonate is one of the most versatile polymers. How else can you explain that computer cases, CDs, automotive and aircraft components, toys and riot shields are all made of the same material? Polycarbonate has been used to make high-quality eyeglass lenses for years under the brand name Makrolon®. These lenses offer advantages over glass because they're lighter and thinner, and they offer UV protection. They're also impact resistant, so you don't have to worry about cracking or scratching them. In fact, the material is so strong that it's basically bulletproof [source: Makrolon].
Besides regular eyeglasses, polycarbonate is also used to make sports goggles, car headlights, projection screens, helmets and visors. Diffuser sheets for LCD flat screens are also made from polycarbonate. These diffuser sheets produce uniform illumination of a higher quality than the backlight units screens usually have, and they offer higher resistance to heat and other damages.
2: Hairdressing Products
Ever wondered how hairspray and mousse keep your hair frozen in place? The answer is plastics. What might not be so obvious is that basically all hair products contain polymers. For example, polymers are used in conditioners to help flatten the hair strands and smooth out split ends. They're also added to shampoos as a thickener -- without polymers, shampoos would be more like perfumed water than creamy soaps.
In hairsprays, gels and mousses, polymers cause a film to set over the hair. As the product dries, the polymer molecules attach to each other and form a clear coat that holds the hair in place.
1: Credit Cards
You know polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, as the material used to make plumbing fittings and pipes, but PVC has a more fun function as well: It's used to make credit cards. PVC sheets are thin, so to make a credit card, two or three layers are glued together. This includes a layer with the printed information on it plus one or two clear ones.
The same PVC material is used to make leatherlike materials for clothing and shoes, as well as vinyl records, synthetic floor tiles and electric wire insulation. Commercial signs and banners, like the ones at the storefront of a shop or restaurant, are often made of PVC as well.
Lots More Information
- 10 Most Valuable Metals
- 10 NASA Inventions You Might Use Every Day
- Quirky Facts About Mass-produced Food
- 10 Ways Quantum Physics Will Change the World
- Top 10 Genetically Modified Food Products
- Alliance Polymers Inc. "The World of Plastics and Polymers." 2007. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.alliancepoly.com/polymers-use.asp
- American Chemical Society. "Age of Plastics Dawns with Bakelite." 2007. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://acswebcontent.acs.org/landmarks/newproducts_t.html#bakelite
- Azom. "Testing the Materials and Inks Used in the Manufacture of Credit Cards." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.azom.com/details.asp?ArticleID=1923
- Bannatyne, Lesley. "Where Does Your Recycled Bottle Go?" The Christian Science Monitor. Sep. 13, 2005. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0913/p18s02-hfks.html
- Coop La Maison Verte. "Garbage Bag Debate: Biodegradable, Compostable... What Really is Best for the Environment?" December 2007. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.cooplamaisonverte.com/en/node/1109
- Cunningham, Wayne. "Driving It: The Plastic, Transparent Car." Cnet. June 6, 2007. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-13529_7-6740435-1.html
- Ecology Center. "Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.ecologycenter.org/ptf/misconceptions.html
- Everyday Mysteries. "Who Invented the Toothbrush And When Was it Invented?" August 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/tooth.html
- Greenpeace. "PVC Waste." June 2, 2003. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/polyvinyl-chloride/pvc-waste
- ICIS. "Polycarbonate Uses and Market Data." July 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.icis.com/v2/chemicals/9076146/polycarbonate/uses.html
- Makrolon. "Makrolon® -- A Plastic that Makes Seeing Light Work." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.makrolon.com/bms/db-rsc/makroloncmsr6.nsf/id/Corrective_Lenses_EN
- McKay, Tonya Becker. "Polymers in Hair-Care Products." Naturally Curly. Jan. 15, 2005. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.naturallycurly.com/curlreading/curl-products/polymers-in-hair-care-products
- National Geographic. "Recycling Polymers." 1997. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.nationalgeographic.com/resources/ngo/education/plastics/recycle.html
- Packaging and Films Association. "Polyamides." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.pafa.org.uk/Materials/Polyamide/tabid/79/Default.aspx
- Plastomer Technologies. "PTFE Properties." 2009. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.amicon.com/ptfeproperties.htm
- ReuseIt. "Myth: Biodegradable Bags Are the Solution." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.reuseit.com/learn-more/myth-busting/what-about-biodegradable-bags
- Roach, John. "Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?" National Geographic. Sept. 2, 2003. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/09/0902_030902_plasticbags.html
- Science Daily. "Cars of the Future: Plastic Makes Perfect?" Feb. 1, 2006. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.sciencedaily.com/videos/2006/0211-cars_of_the_future_plastic_makes_perfect.htm
- Steve Spangler Science. "Water Absorbing Crystals." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/experiment/00000057
- Worldwatch Institute. "Plastic Bags: A Necessary Eyesore." 2010. (Oct. 1, 2010) http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1499