Plastic is used for production across almost every sector of human industry, from consumer products to transportation and even satellites, plastic plays a leading role in the manufacture of most of our everyday items.

How plastic is produced

Plastic is formed by mixing crude oil with numerous organic materials, including gas, salt, cellulose, and coal. Crude oil is first distilled in an oil refinery to be split into lighter components – referred to as fractions. Fractions are a mix of compounds consisting of carbons and hydrogen (hydrocarbons). Of these various fractions, one is essential for the production of plastic – naphtha. Through a process known as polycondensation or polymerization, plastics are formed. It can then be shaped for specific purposes using specialist tools and welding rods.

A brief history of plastic production

Mass production of plastic began in the early 1950s and has grown exponentially year on year ever since. It’s estimated global production will increase to near 2,000 million tons by the year 2050 as compared to just 1.7 million tons annually back in 1950. Plastic is used across a huge variety of manufacturing processes – everything from clothing to housing and the production of some of our most common household items.

The main uses of plastic

Plastic surrounds us – it’s used in some shape or form in almost everything we own. While plastic is predominant in most of the things we use day to day, according to recent statistics, the use of plastic is particularly prevalent in the following industries:

Packaging: 39.5% of all plastic production is used for packaging.

The building and construction industry: 20.1% of all plastics are used in the construction industry.

Cars and other vehicles: The automotive industry uses 8.6% of all produced plastics in the manufacture of cars and other automobiles.

Electrics and electronics: 5.7% of all plastics are used in the electrical and electronics industries.

Farming and agriculture: In total, the farming and agriculture industries account for around 3.4% of all plastic production.

Other sectors: The remaining 22.7% of plastics are used in a vast array of sectors including the sports industry, the manufacture of health and safety equipment, furniture, clothing and the production of general household appliances and equipment.

The different types of plastic

While most of us use the generic term ‘plastic’, there are many different variations – each with particular properties, uses and benefits.

The most common types of plastic are:

Polypropylene (PP): Polypropylenes are typically used in the packaging industry and for car production.

Polyethylene (PE-LD, PE-LLD): Common uses for polyethylene include food packaging and reusable bags.

Polyethylene (PE-HD, PE-MD): Another type of polyethylene which is mostly used in the production of milk bottles and toys.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): PVC is common in the production of flooring and window frames.

Polyurethane (PUR): Commonly used in the manufacture of insulation and beds (mostly mattresses).

Polystyrene (PS, PS-E): Polystyrene is most common in packaging; however, it can also be used in plastic cups and glass frames.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): Mostly used in the production of bottles.