Today’s major usage of plastic materials can be traced back to the 1800s with the development of rubber technology, where one of the key breakthroughs was the discovery of vulcanisation of natural rubber by Charles Goodyear. Throughout the 1800s a number of attempts were made to develop synthetic polymers. Polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) were discovered during this time, but were either too brittle to be commercially viable or would not keep their shape. The first synthetic polymer to enter mass production was Bakelite, developed by the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in 1909. Later in the 1900s the modern form of PVC was created (1926), followed by polyurethane (PUR) (1937), a more processable polystyrene (1938). In the early 1950s a new process for synthesizing polymers was discovered that made a lot of the common plastics that we use today possible, including high-density polyethylene and polypropylene. Advances in the material sciences through the 1960s have seen the development of plastic materials produced from other natural resources, such as the bacterial fermentation of sugars and lipids, and include polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), polylactides (PLA), aliphatic polyesters, and polysaccharides.

 

A brief timeline can be described as follows:

Year

Polymer type

Notes

Year

Polymer type

Notes

1839

Natural Rubber

Processing method invented by Charles Goodyear

1937

Polyurethane

Otto Bayer and co-workers

1839

Polystyrene

Discovered by Eduard Simon

1938

Polystyrene

Made into a commercially viable polymer

1862

Parkesine

Alexander PArkes

1938

Polyethylene terephthalate

John Whinfield and James Dickson

1869

Celluloid

John Wesley Hyatt

1942

Unsaturated polyester

John Whinfield and James Dickson

1872

Polyvinyl chloride

First created by Eugen Baumann

1951

High-density polyethylene

Paul Hogan and Robert Banks

1894

Viscose Rayon

Charles Frederick Cross

1951

Polypropylene

Paul Hogan and Robert Banks

1907

Bakelite

Leo Hendrik Baekeland

1953

Polycarbonate

Hermann Schnell

1926

Plasticized PVC

Walter Semon

1954

Styrofoam

Ray McIntire

1933

Polyvinylidene chloride

Raplh Wiley

1960

Polylactic acid

Patrick Gruber

1935

Low-density polyethylene

Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett

1978

Linear low-density polyethylene

DuPont

1936

Acrylic or polymethyl methacrylate


 

 

 

Global production

Polyolefins

Polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP)

Other thermoplastics

PVC, polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), expanded PS (EPS), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polycarbonate (PC), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), styrene acrylonitrile (SAN), and other high performance composites

Fibres

Polyamide (PA), polyester, acrylic, and others

Elastomers (synthetic)

Styrene butadiene (SBR), synthetic isoprene rubber (IR), butyl rubber (IIR), polybutadiene rubber (BR), acrylonitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), polychloroprene rubber (CR), and others

Natural rubber

Including latex

Biopolymers

Polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanote (PHA), polyhybroxybutyrate (PHB), polyhydroxybutyrate-valerate (PHBV), cellulose, and others.

Average annual plastic consumption (kg per person per year)

 Types of Plastics

Thermo-plastics can be melted and remoulded many times

Thermo-setts remain rigid when set and the process is not reversible

Thermoplastics

Thermoset plastics

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)

Epoxide

Polycarbonate (PC)

Phenol-formaldehyde

Polyethylene (PE)

Polyurethane (PUR)

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Unsaturated polyester resins

Polypropylene (PP)

Most rubbers

Polystyrene (PS)

Bakelite

Poly(methyl)methacrylate (PMMA)


Plastics take their name from the polmyer form which they are made, and different bond combinations give different properties. For example:

PE    PVC   and PUR

Types of additive compounds

To make plastic materials fit for their intended purpose they are often processed with chemical additives, examples include:

Chemical additive

Function

Plasticisers

Renders the material pliable (phthalates used as a softer in PVC)

Flame retardants

Reduces flammability

Bisphenol-A

Used as a monomer in the production of polycarbonate

Cross-linking additives

Link strands of polymer chains together

Antioxidants & other stabilizers

To slow down the rate at which oxygen, heat and light will degrade the polymer.

Antimicrodial agents

Makes the polymer resistance to microbial breakdown

Surfactants (Surface-active agents)

Modify the surface properties of the polymer to allow emulsion of normally incompatible substances.

Inorganic fillers (such as carbon and silica)

To reinforce the material and improve impact resistance.

Polymer + additives = everyday plastic products