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Webster's Dictionary

That's an interesting definition, you may be thinking, but how is plastic actually made? What's involved
in the plastics manufacturing process?


The term "plastics" encompasses organic materials, such as the elements carbon (C), hydrogen (H),
nitrogen (N), chlorine (Cl) and sulfur (S), which have properties similar to those naturally grown in
organic materials such as wood, horn and rosin. Organic materials are based on polymers, which are
produced by the conversion of natural products or by syththesis from primary chemicals coming from oil,
natural gas or coal.

The plastic manufacturing process begins by heating the hydrocarbons in a "cracking process." Here, in
the presence of a catalyst, larger molecules are broken down into smaller ones such as ethylene
(ethene) C2H4, propylene (propene) C3H6, and butene C4H8 and other hydrocarbons. The yield of
ethylene is controlled by the cracking temperature and is more than 30% at 850°C and such products as
styrene and vinylchloride can be produced in subsequent reactions. These are then the starting
materials for several other types of plastics. Therefore, this process results in the conversion of the
natural gas or crude oil components into monomers such as ethylene, propylene, butene and styrene.

These monomers are then chemically bonded into chains called polymers. Different combinations of
monomers yield plastic resins with different properties and characteristics. Each monomer yields a
plastic resin with different properties and characteristics. Combinations of monomers produce
copolymers with further property variations.

The resulting resins may be molded or formed to produce several different kinds of plastic products with
application in many major markets. The variability of resin permits a compound to be tailored to a
specific design or performance requirement. This is why certain plastics are best suited for some
applications while others are best suited for entirely different applications. For instance, impact strength
measures the ability of a material to withstand shock loading. Heat resistance protects the resin from
exposure to excessive temperatures. Chemical resistance protects the resin from breakdown due to
exposure to environmental chemicals.

Some examples of material properties in plastic product applications are:

- Hot-filled packaging used for products such as ketchup

- Chemical-resistant packaging used for products such as bleach
- Impact strength of car bumpers


Polymers are created by the chemical bonding of many identical or related basic units and those
produced from a single monomer type are called homopolymers. These polymers are specifically made
of small units bonded into long chains. Carbon makes up the backbone of the molecule and hydrogen
atoms are bonded along the carbon backbone.

Polymers that contain primarily carbon and hydrogen are classified as organic polymers. Polypropylene,
polybutylene, polystyrene and polymethylpentene are examples of these.
Even though the basic makeup of many polymers is carbon and hydrogen, other elements can also be
involved. Oxygen, chlorine, fluorine, nitrogen, silicon, phosphorous and sulfur are other elements that
are found in the molecular makeup of polymers. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) contains chlorine. Nylon
contains nitrogen. Teflon contains fluorine. Polyester and polycarbonates contain oxygen. There are
also some polymers that, instead of having a carbon backbone, have a silicon or phosphorous
backbone and these are considered inorganic polymers.


When plastics emerge from reactors, they do not have the desired properties that make it a material of
choice, that is, it is considered a raw material. In order to achieve a commercial product, the plastic is
subject to further treatment and the inclusion of additives which are selected to give it specified
properties. Most polymers are blended with additives during raw material processing into their finished
parts. Additives are incorporated into polymers to alter and improve their basic mechanical, physical or
chemical properties. Additives are also used to protect the polymer from the degrading effects of light,
heat, or bacteria; to change such polymer properties as flow; to provide product color; and to provide
special characteristics such as improved surface appearance or reduced friction.


- antioxidants: for outside application

- colorants: for colored plastic parts
- foaming agents: for styrofoam cups
- plasticizers: used in toys and food processing equipment


A Thermoset is a polymer that solidifies or "sets" irreversibly when heated. Similar to the relationship
between a raw and a cooked egg, once heated, a thermoset polymer can't be softened again and once
cooked, the egg cannot revert back to its original form. Thermosets are valued for their durability and
strength and are used primarily in automobiles and construction, although applications such as
adhesives, inks and coatings are also significant. Other examples of thermoset plastics and their
product applications are:

     Î     [  

- mattresses - lacquers - glues

- cushions - varnishes - coating for electrical
- insulation - boat hulls circuits
- ski boots - furniture - helicopter blades
- toys Ê

A Thermoplastic is a polymer in which the molecules are held together by weak secondary bonding
forces that soften when exposed to heat and return to its original condition when cooled back down to
room temperature. When a thermoplastic is softened by heat, it can then be shaped by extrusion,
molding or pressing. Ice cubes are a common household item which exemplify the thermoplastic
principle. Ice will melt when heated but readily solidifies when cooled. Like a polymer, this process may
be repeated numerous times. Thermoplastics offer versatility and a wide range of applications. They
make up the greatest share of plastics used in food packaging because they can be rapidly and
economically formed into any shape needed to fulfill the packaging function. Examples include milk jugs
and soda bottles. Other examples of thermoplastics are:


- packaging - carpet fibers ë 
- electrical insulation - automotive bumpers
- milk and water bottles - microwave containers - sheathing for electrical
- packaging film - external prosthesesyes cables
- house wrap - floor and wall coverings
- agricultural film Ê - siding
- credit cards
- automobile instrument


There are a variety of different processing methods used to convert resins into finished products. Some

[  - This continuous process is used for the production of semi-finished goods such as films,
sheet profiles, tubs and pipes. They are termed "semi-finished" because they must be further processed
before they become useful articles. Plastic material is first loaded into a hopper and then fed into a long
heated chamber through which it is moved by the action of a continuously revolving screw. At the end of
the heated chamber, the molten plastic is forced out through a small opening called a die that is cast in
the shape of the finished product. As the plastic extrusion comes from the die, it is fed onto a conveyor
belt where it is cooled by blowers or by immersion in water. The operation's principle is the same as that
of a meat mincer but with added heaters in the wall of the extruder. Examples of products include lawn
edging, pipe, film and window trim.

    - Since this process can produce moldings of high quality and with great accuracy, it
is very widespread. It is predominately used for thermoplastics but smaller amounts of thermosets and
elastomers are also processed this way. In injection molding, plastic material is also put into a hopper,
which feeds into a heating chamber. A plunger pushes the plastic through the heating chamber where
the material is then softened into a fluid state. At the end of this chamber, the resin is forced into a
closed mold. Once the plastic cools to a solid state, the mold opens and the finished product is ejected.
This process is used to make such items as butter tubs, yogurt containers, closures, fittings and razors.

    - Blow molding is a process used in conjunction with extrusion. The die forms a molten
tube of thermoplastic material. Using compressed air, the tube is then blown to conform to the interior of
a chilled mold which clamps around the tube. Overall, the goal is to produce a uniform melt, form it into
a tube with the desired cross section and blow it into the exact shape of the product. This process is
intended for use in manufacturing hollow plastic products and its principal advantage is its ability to
produce hollow shapes without having to join two or more separately molded parts. This method is used
to make items such as commercial drums and bottles.

"     - This process is relatively simple in concept since heat is used to melt and fuse a
plastic resin inside a closed mold without using pressure. Rotational molding consists of a mold
mounted on a machine capable of rotating on two axes simultaneously. Solid or liquid resin is then
placed within the mold and heat is then applied. Rotation distributes the plastic into a uniform coating on
the inside of the mold until the plastic part cools and sets. This process is used to make hollow
configurations. Common rotationally molded products include shipping drums, storage tanks and some
consumer furniture and toys.

# $  :



The term " " covers a range of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymerization products. They are
composed of organic condensation or addition polymers and may (often) contain other substances to
improve performance or economics. There are few natural polymers generally considered to be
" ". Plastics can be formed into objects or films or fibers. Their name is derived from the fact that
many are malleable, having the property of plasticity. Plastics are designed with immense variation in
properties such as heat tolerance, hardness, resiliency and many others. Combined with this
adaptability, the general uniformity of composition and light weight of plastics ensures their use in
almost all industrial segments.

Polymerization is a process of reacting monomer molecules together in a chemical

reaction to form linear chains or a three-dimensional network of polymer chains .
There are many forms of polymerization and different systems exist to categorize
them. Ê

The main categories are

a.addition polymerization b. step-growth polymerization.

"Y " may also refer to any material characterized by deformation or failure under shear stress

Plastics can be classified in many ways but most commonly by their polymer back-bone 


   . Other classifications include thermoplastic vs.
thermoset, elastomer vs. engineering plastic, addition or condensation, and Glass transition
temperature or Tg.

Many plastics are partially crystalline and partially amorphous in molecular structure, giving them both a
melting point (the temperature at which the covalent bonds dissolve) and one or more glass transitions
(temperatures at which the degree of cross-linking is substantially reduced.)

Plastics are polymers: long-chains of atoms bonded to one another. These chains are made up of many
repeating molecular units, or " ". The vast majority of plastics are composed of polymers of
carbon alone or with oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine or sulfur in the back-bone. (Some of commercial interest
are silicon based.) The back-bone is that part of the chain on the main "path" linking the multitude of
monomer units together. To customize the properties of a plastic different molecular groups "hang" from
the back-bone (usually they are "hung" as part of the monomers before linking monomers together to
form the polymer chain). This customization by pendant groups has allowed plastics to become such an
indispensable part of 21st century life by fine-tuning the properties of the polymer.

The development of plastics has come from the use of natural materials (e.g. chewing gum, shellac) to
the use of chemically modified natural materials (e.g. natural rubber, nitrocellulose) and finally to
completely man-made molecules (e.g. epoxy, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene).

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People have been using artificial organic polymers for centuries in the form of waxes and shellacs. A
plant polymer named "cellulose" provides the structural strength for natural fibers and ropes, and by the
early 19th century natural rubber, tapped from rubber trees, was in widespread use.
Eventually, inventors learned to improve the properties of natural polymers. Natural rubber was
sensitive to temperature, becoming sticky and smelly in hot weather and brittle in cold weather. In 1834,
two inventors, Friedrich Ludersdorf of Germany and Nathaniel Hayward of the US, independently
discovered that adding sulfur to raw rubber helped prevent the material from becoming sticky.

In 1839, the American inventor Charles Goodyear was experimenting with the sulfur treatment of natural
rubber when, according to legend, he dropped a piece of sulfur-treated rubber on a stove. The rubber
seemed to have improved properties, and Goodyear followed up with further experiments, and
developed a process known as "    " that involved cooking the rubber with sulfur. Compared
to untreated natural rubber, Goodyear's "   " was stronger, more resistant to abrasion,
more elastic, much less sensitive to temperature, impermeable to gases, and highly resistant to
chemicals and electric current.

Vulcanization remains an important industrial process for the manufacture of rubber in both natural and
artificial forms. Natural rubber is composed of an organic polymer named "  ". Vulcanization
creates sulfur bonds that link separate isoprene polymers together, improving the material's structural
integrity and its other properties.

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All Goodyear had done with vulcanization was improve the properties of a natural polymer. The next
logical step was to use a natural polymer, cellulose, as the basis for a new material.

Inventors were particularly interested in developing synthetic substitutes for those natural materials that
were expensive and in short supply, since that meant a profitable market to exploit. Ivory was a
particularly attractive target for a synthetic replacement.

An Englishman from Birmingham, named Alexander Parkes developed a "synthetic ivory" named
"pyroxlin", which he marketed under the trade name "Parkesine", and which won a bronze medal at the
1862 World's fair in London. Parkesine was made from cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent.
The output of the process hardened into a hard, ivory-like material that could be molded when heated.

However, Parkes was not able to scale up the process to an industrial level, and products made from
Parkesine quickly warped and cracked after a short period of use. An American printer and amateur
inventor named John Wesley Hyatt took up where Parkes left off. Parkes had failed for lack of a proper
softener, but Hyatt discovered that camphor would do the job very nicely.

Hyatt was something of an industrial genius who understood what could be done with such a
shapeable, or "plastic", material, and proceeded to design much of the basic industrial machinery
needed to produce good-quality plastic materials in quantity. Since cellulose was the main constituent
used in the synthesis of his new material, Hyatt named it "celluloid". It was introduced in 1863.

One of the first products were dental pieces, and sets of false teeth built around celluloid proved
cheaper than existing rubber dentures. However, celluloid dentures tended to soften when hot, making
tea drinking tricky, and the camphor taste tended to be difficult to suppress.

Celluloid's real breakthrough products were waterproof shirt collars, cuffs, and the false shirt fronts
known as "dickies", whose unmanageable nature later became a stock joke in silent-movie comedies.
They didn't wilt and didn't stain easily, and Hyatt sold them by trainloads. Corsets made with celluloid
stays also proved popular, since perspiration didn't rust the stays, as it would if they had been made of

Celluloid proved extremely versatile in its field of application, providing a cheap and attractive
replacement for ivory, tortoiseshell, and bone, and traditional products that had used these materials
were much easier to fabricate with plastics. Some of the items made with cellulose in the 19th century
were beautifully designed and implemented. For example, celluloid combs made to tie up the long
tresses of hair fashionable at the time are now jewel-like museum pieces. Such pretty trinkets were no
longer only for the rich.

Celluloid could also be used in entirely new applications. Hyatt figured out how to fabricate the material
in a strip format for movie film. By the year 1900, movie film was a major market for celluloid.

However, celluloid still tended to yellow and crack over time, and it had another, more dangerous
defect: it burned very easily and spectacularly, unsurprising given that mixtures of nitric acid and
cellulose are also used to synthesize smokeless powder.

Ping-pong balls, one of the few products still made with celluloid, sizzle and burn if set on fire, and Hyatt
liked to tell stories about celluloid billiard balls exploding when struck very hard. These stories might
have had a basis in fact, since the billiard balls were often celluloid covered with paints based on
another, even more flammable, nitrocellulose product known as "collodion". If the balls had been
imperfectly manufactured, the paints might have acted as primer to set the rest of the ball off with a

Cellulose was also used to produce cloth. While the men who developed celluloid were interested in
replacing ivory, those who developed the new fibers were interested in replacing another expensive
material, silk.

In 1884, a French chemist, the Comte de Chardonnay, introduced a cellulose-based fabric that became
known as "Chardonnay silk". It was an attractive cloth, but like celluloid it was very flammable, a
property completely unacceptable in clothing. After some ghastly accidents, Chardonnay silk was taken
off the market.

In 1894, three British inventors, Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle, patented a new
"artificial silk" or "art silk" that was much safer. The three men sold the rights for the new fabric to the
French Courtauld company, a major manufacturer of silk, which put it into production in 1905, using
cellulose from wood pulp as the "feedstock" material.

Art silk became well known under the trade name "rayon", and was produced in great quantities through
the 1930s, when it was supplanted by better artificial fabrics. It still remains in production today, often in
blends with other natural and artificial fibers. It is cheap and feels smooth on the skin, though it is weak
when wet and creases easily. It could also be produced in a transparent sheet form known as

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The limitations of celluloid led to the next major advance, known as "phenolic" or "phenol-formaldehyde"
plastics. A chemist named Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York state,
was searching for an insulating shellac to coat wires in electric motors and generators. Baekeland found
that mixtures of phenol (C6H5OH) and formaldehyde (HCOH) formed a sticky mass when mixed
together and heated, and the mass became extremely hard if allowed to cool and dry.

He continued his investigations and found that the material could be mixed with wood flour, asbestos, or
slate dust to create "composite" materials with different properties. Most of these compositions were
strong and fire-resistant. The only problem was that the material tended to foam during synthesis, and
the resulting product was of unacceptable quality.

Baekeland built pressure vessels to force out the bubbles and provide a smooth, uniform product. He
publicly announced his discovery in 1909, naming it "bakelite". It was originally used for electrical and
mechanical parts, finally coming into widespread use in consumer goods in the 1920s. When the
Bakelite patent expired in 1927, the Catalin Corporation acquired the patent and began manufacturing
Catalin plastic using a different process that allowed a wider range of coloring.

Bakelite was the first true plastic. It was a purely synthetic material, not based on any material or even
molecule found in nature. It was also the first "thermoset" plastic. Conventional "thermoplastics" can be
molded and then melted again, but thermoset plastics form bonds between polymers strands when
"cured", creating a tangled matrix that cannot be undone without destroying the plastic. Thermoset
plastics are tough and temperature resistant.

Bakelite was cheap, strong, and durable. It was molded into thousands of forms, such as radios,
telephones, clocks, and, of course, billiard balls. The U.S. government even considered making one-
cent coins out of it when World War II caused a copper shortage.

Phenolic plastics are still in widespread use. For example, some electronic circuit boards are made of
sheets of paper or cloth impregnated with phenolic resin.


After the First World War, improvements in chemical technology led to an explosion in new forms of
plastics. Among the earliest examples in the wave of new plastics were "polystyrene" (PS) and
"polyvinyl chloride" (PVC), developed by the I.G. Farben company of Germany.

Polystyrene is a rigid, brittle plastic that is now used to make plastic model kits, disposable eating
utensils, and similar knicknacks. It would also be the basis for one of the most popular "foamed"
plastics, under the name "styrene foam" or "Styrofoam". Foam plastics can be synthesized in an "open
cell" form, in which the foam bubbles are interconnected, as in an absorbent sponge, and "closed cell",
in which all the bubbles are distinct, like tiny balloons, as in gas-filled foam insulation and floatation

PVC has side chains incorporating chlorine atoms, which form strong bonds. PVC in its normal form is
stiff, strong, heat and weather resistant, and is now used for making plumbing, gutters, house siding,
enclosures for computers and other electronics gear. PVC can also be softened with chemical
processing, and in this form it is now used for shrink-wrap, food packaging, and raingear.

The real star of the plastics industry in the 1930s was "polyamide" (PA), far better known by its trade
name, "nylon". Nylon was the first purely synthetic fiber, introduced by Du Pont Corporation at the 1936
World's Fair in New York City.

In 1927, Du Pont had begun a secret development project designated "Fiber66", under the direction of a
Harvard chemist named Wallace Carothers. Carothers had been hired to perform pure research, and
not only investigated new materials, but worked to understand their molecular structure and how it
related to material properties. He took some of the first steps on the road to "molecular design" of

His work led to the discovery of synthetic nylon fiber, which was very strong but also very flexible. The
first application was for bristles for toothbrushes. However, Du Pont's real target was silk, particularly
silk stockings.

It took Du Pont twelve years and $27 million USD to refine nylon and develop the industrial processes
for bulk manufacture. With such a major investment, it was no surprise that Du Pont spared little
expense to promote nylon after its introduction, creating a public sensation, or "nylon mania". Nylon
mania came to an abrupt stop at the end of 1941, when America entered World War II. The production
capacity that had been built up to produce nylon stockings, or just "nylons", for American women, was
taken over to manufacture vast numbers of parachutes for fliers and paratroopers. After the war ended,
Du Pont went back to selling nylon to the public, engaging in another promotional campaign in 1946 that
resulted in an even bigger craze, triggering off "nylon riots".

Nylon still remains an important plastic, and not just for use in fabrics. In its bulk form it is very wear-
resistant, and so is used to build gears, bearings, bushings, and other mechanical parts.


Another plastic that was critical to the war effort was "synthetic rubber", which was produced in a variety
of forms.

First synthetic rubber polymer was obtained by Lebedev in 1910 Practical synthetic rubber grew out of
studies published in 1930 written independently by American Wallace_Carothers, Russian scientist
Lebedev and the German scientist Hermann Staudinger. These studies led in 1931 to one of the first
successful synthetic rubbers, known as "neoprene". Neoprene is highly resistant to heat and chemicals
such as oil and gasoline, and is used in fuel hoses and as an insulating material in machinery.

In 1935, German chemists synthesized the first of a series of synthetic rubbers known as "Buna
rubbers". These were "copolymers", meaning that their polymers were made up from not one but two
monomers, in alternating sequence. One such Buna rubber, known as "GR-S" ("Government Rubber
Styrene), is a copolymer of butadiene and styrene, became the basis for US synthetic rubber production
during World War II.

Worldwide natural rubber supplies were limited, and by mid-1942 most of the rubber-producing regions
were under Japanese control. Military trucks needed rubber for tires, and rubber was used in almost
every other war machine. The US government launched a major (and largely secret) effort to develop
and refine synthetic rubber. A principal scientist involved with the effort was Edward Robbins.

By 1944 a total of 50 factories were manufacturing it, pouring out a volume of the material twice that of
the world's natural rubber production before the beginning of the war.

After the war, natural rubber plantations no longer had a stranglehold on rubber supplies, particularly
after chemists learned to synthesize isoprene. GR-S remains the primary synthetic rubber for the
manufacture of tires.

Synthetic rubber would also play an important part in the space race and nuclear arms race. Solid
rockets used during World War II used nitrocellulose explosives for propellants, but it was impractical
and dangerous to make such rockets very big.

During the war, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers came up with a new solid fuel,
based on asphalt fuel mixed with an oxidizer, such as potassium or ammonium percholorate, plus
aluminum powder, which burns very hot. This new solid fuel burned more slowly and evenly than
nitrocellulose explosives, and was much less dangerous to store and use, though it tended to flow
slowly out of the rocket in storage and the rockets using it had to be stockpiled nose-down.

After the war, the Caltech researchers began to investigate the use of synthetic rubbers instead of
asphalt as the fuel in the mixture. By the mid-1950s, large missiles were being built using solid fuels
based on synthetic rubber, mixed with ammonium perchlorate and high proportions of aluminum
powder. Such solid fuels could be cast into large, uniform blocks that had no cracks or other defects that
would cause nonuniform burning. Ultimately, all large military rockets and missiles would use synthetic
rubber based solid fuels, and they would also play a significant part in the civilian space effort.


'     ' 

Other plastics emerged in the prewar period, though some wouldn't come into widespread use until after
the war.

By 1936, American, British, and German companies were producing polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA),
better known as acrylic. Although acrylics are now well-known for the use in paints and synthetic fibers,
such as "fake furs", in their bulk form they are actually very hard and more transparent than glass, and
are sold as glass replacements under trade names such as "Plexiglas" and "Lucite". Plexiglas was used
to build aircraft canopies during the war, and it is also now used as a marble replacement for

Another important plastic, "polyethylene" (PE), sometimes known as "polythene", was discovered in
1933 by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett at the British industrial giant Imperial Chemical Industries
(ICI). This material evolved into two forms, "low density polyethylene" (LDPE), and "high density
polyethylene" (HDPE).

PEs are cheap, flexible, durable, and chemically resistant. LDPE is used to make films and packaging
materials, while HDPE is used for containers, plumbing, and automotive fittings. While PE has low
resistance to chemical attack, it was found later that a PE container could be made much more robust
by exposing it to fluorine gas, which modified the surface layer of the container into the much tougher

Polyethylene would lead after the war to an improved material, "polypropylene" (PP), which was
discovered in the early 1950s by Giulio Natta. It is common in modern science and technology that the
growth of the general body of knowledge can lead to the same inventions in different places at about the
same time, but polypropylene was an extreme case of this phenomenon, being separately invented
about nine times. It was a patent attorney's dream scenario, and litigation wasn't resolved until 1989.

Polypropylene managed to survive the legal process, and two American chemists working for Phillips
Petroleum of the Netherlands, J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, are now generally credited as the
"official" inventors of the material. Polypropylene is similar to its ancestor, polyethylene, and shares
polyethylene's low cost, but it is much more robust. It is used in everything from plastic bottles to carpets
to plastic furniture, and is very heavily used in automobiles.

Polyurethane was invented by Friedrich Bayer & Company of Germany in 1937, and would come into
use after the war, in blown form for mattresses, furniture padding, and thermal insulation. It is also used
in non-blown form for sports wear as "lycra".

In 1939, I.G. Farben Industrie of Germany filed a patent for "polyepoxide" or "epoxy". Epoxies are a
class of thermoset plastic that form cross-links and "cure" when a catalyzing agent, or "hardener", is
added. After the war they would come into wide use for coatings, "adhesives", and composite materials.

Composites using epoxy as a matrix include glass-reinforced plastic, where the structural element is
glass fiber, and "carbon-epoxy composites", in which the structural element is carbon fiber. Fiberglass is
now often used to build sport boats, and carbon-epoxy composites are an increasingly important
structural element in aircraft, as they are lightweight, strong, and heat-resistant.

Two chemists named Rex Whinfield and James Dickson, working at a small English company with the
quaint name of the "Calico Printer's Association" in Manchester, developed "polyethylene terephthalate"
(PET or PETE) in 1941, and it would be used for synthetic fibers in the postwar era, with names such as
"polyester", "dacron", and "terylene".

PET is more impermeable than other low-cost plastics and so is a popular material for making bottles
for Coca-Cola and other "fizzy drinks", since carbonation tends to attack other plastics, and for acidic
drinks such as fruit or vegetable juices. PET is also strong and abrasion resistant, and is used for
making mechanical parts, food trays, and other items that have to endure abuse. PET films,
tradenamed "Mylar®", are used to make recording tape.

One of the most impressive plastics used in the war, and a top secret, was "polytetrafluoroethylene"
(PTFE), better known as "teflon", which could be deposited on metal surfaces as a scratchproof and
corrosion-resistant, low-friction protective coating. The polyfluoroethylene surface layer created by
exposing a polyethylene container to fluorine gas is very similar to teflon.
A Du Pont chemist named Roy Plunkett discovered teflon by accident in 1938. During the war, it was
used in gaseous-diffusion processes to refine uranium for the atomic bomb, as the process was highly
corrosive. By the early 1960s, teflon "non-stick" frying pans were a hot consumer item.

Teflon was later used to synthesize the breathable fabric "Gore-Tex", which can be used to build
raingear that in principle "breathes" to keep the wearer's moisture from building up. GoreTex is also
used for surgical implants; teflon strand is used to make dental floss; and teflon mixed with fluorine
compounds is used to make "decoy" flares dropped by aircraft to distract heat-seeking missiles.

After the war, the new plastics that had been developed entered the consumer mainstream in a flood.
New manufacturing were developed, using various forming, molding, casting, and extrusion processes,
to churn out plastic products in vast quantities. American consumers enthusiastically adopted the
endless range of colorful, cheap, and durable plastic gimmicks being produced for new suburban home

One of the most visible parts of this plastics invasion was Earl Tupper's "tupperware", a complete line of
sealable polyethylene food containers that Tupper cleverly promoted through a network of housewives
who sold Tupperware as a means of bringing in some money. The tupperware line of products was well
thought out and highly effective, greatly reducing spoilage of foods in storage. Thin-film "plastic wrap"
that could be purchased in rolls also helped keep food fresh.

Another prominent element in 1950s homes was "Formica®", a plastic laminate that was used to
surface furniture and cabinetry. Formica was durable and attractive. It was particularly useful in
kitchens, as it did not absorb, and could be easily cleaned of stains from food preparation, such as
blood or grease. With formica, a very attractive and well-built table could be built using low-cost and
lightweight plywood with formica covering, rather than expensive and heavy hardwoods like oak or

Composite materials like fiberglass came into use for building boats and, in some cases, cars.
Polyurethane foam was used to fill mattresses, and styrofoam was used to line ice coolers and make
float toys.

Plastics continue to be improved. General Electric introduced "lexan", a high-impact "polycarbonate"

plastic, in the 1970s. Du Pont developed "kevlar", an extremely strong synthetic fiber that was best-
known for its use in bullet-proof vests and combat helmets. Kevlar was so remarkable that Du Pont
officials actually had to release statements to deny rumors that the company had received the recipe for
it from space aliens.


Although plastics have had a remarkable impact globally, it has become increasingly obvious that there
is a price to be paid for their use.

Plastic was almost too good, as it was durable and degraded very slowly. In some cases, burning it
could release toxic fumes. Also, the manufacturing of plastics often created large quantities of chemical
pollutants, and required use of the Earth's limited supply of fossil fuels. However, it should be noted that
plastics only consume 4% of world's oil production. Furthermore, it can be claimed that the use of
plastics helps the environment by saving water and oil. For example, plastics make cars lighter, thus
saving oil and reducing CO2 emissions.

By the 1990s, plastic recycling programs were common in the United States and elsewhere.
Thermoplastics can be remelted and reused, and thermoset plastics can be ground up and used as
filler, though the purity of the material tends to degrade with each reuse cycle. There are methods by
which plastics can be broken back down to a feedstock state.

To assist recycling of disposable items, the Plastic Bottle Institute of the Society of the Plastics Industry
devised a now-familiar scheme to mark plastic bottles by plastic type. A recyclable plastic container
using this scheme is marked with a triangle of three "chasing arrows", which enclose a number giving
the plastic type:

Plastics type marks: the resin identification code

- Y Y

  , Commonly found on: 2-litre soft drink bottles, cooking oil bottles,
peanut butter jars.
-!"Y !" 

 , Commonly found on: detergent bottles, milk jugs.
-Y#$ Y

$ , Commonly found on: plastic pipes, outdoor furniture, shrink wrap, water
bottles, salad dressing and liquid detergent containers.
- %"Y % " 

 , Commonly found on: dry cleaning bags, produce bags, trash can
liners, food storage containers.
- YY Y
  - , Commonly found on: bottle caps, drinking straws
- Y& Y

 , Commonly found on: packaging pellets or "Styrofoam peanuts," cups, plastic
tableware, meat trays, take away food clam shell containers
- '!( - This plastic category, as its name of "other" implies, is any plastic other than the named #1-
#6, Commonly found on: certain kinds of food containers and Tupperware.

Unfortunately, recycling plastics proved difficult. The biggest problem with plastics recycling is that it is
difficult to automate the sorting of plastic waste, and so it is labor-intensive. While containers are usually
made from a single type and color of plastic, making them relatively easy to sort out, a consumer
product like a cellular phone may have many small parts consisting of over a dozen different types and
colors of plastics. As the value of the material is low, recycling plastics is unprofitable. For this reason,
the percentage of plastics recycled in the US is very small, somewhere around 5%. Even so the
American Plastics Council spends about 20 million dollars a year on an ad campaign that tries to
convince the public that plastic recycling works.
Recently it was shown, however, that for post-consumer plastic waste, gasification offers a solution for
the recycling of such material.

Research has been done on "biodegradable" plastics that break down with exposure to sunlight. Starch
can be mixed with plastic to allow it to degrade more easily, but it still doesn't lead to complete
breakdown of the plastic. Some researchers have actually genetically engineered bacteria that
synthesize a completely biodegradable plastic, but this material is expensive at present. BASF make
Ecoflex, a fully biodegradable polyester for food packaging applications. The disadvantage of
biodegradable plastics is that the carbon that is locked up in them is released into the atmosphere as
the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when they degrade.

So far, these plastics have proven too costly and limited for general use, and critics have pointed out
that the only real problem they address is roadside litter, which is regarded as a secondary issue. When
such plastic materials are dumped into landfills, they can become "mummified" and persist for decades
even if they are supposed to be biodegradable. In this regard though plastics are no worse than food or
paper which also fails to degrade in landfills.

There have been some success stories. The Courtauld concern, the original producer of rayon, came
up with a revised process for the material in the mid-1980s to produce "Tencel". Tencel has many
superior properties over rayon, but is still produced from "biomass" feedstocks, and its manufacture is
extraordinarily clean by the standards of plastic production.


One of the great appeals of plastics have been their low price, as compared to other materials.
However, in recent years the cost of plastics has been rising dramatically. The cause of the increase is
the sharply rising cost of petroleum, the raw material that is chemically altered to form commercial
plastics. As the cost of plastic hinges on the cost of petroleum, should petroleum prices continues to
rise, so will the cost of plastic. In 2004, the higher price of plastic drove a number of plastic toy
manufacturers out of business.

Fears of dwindling petroleum supplies are becoming very real, with publications such as USA Today
reporting that current oil reserves will only last 40 years. Alternate reserves such as oil shale and tar oil
(tar sand) do exist, but the cost of production is much higher than with current sources. Thus, even if
alternative sources are used, costs will continue to rise.

Scientists are seeking cheaper alternatives to plastic. Some plastic alternatives are: graphite, fiberglass,
carbon fiber, graphene, carbon nanotubes, diamond, aerogel, carbon nanofoam, cellulose soybean
plastic (bioplastic), and other carbon-based non-petroleum materials. Some of these alternatives are too
expensive or not malleable enough, but can be used in some plastic applications. Some are many times
the strength of plastic, but crack if made thin like cellophane. The most promising alternatives to plastic
are graphene, carbon nanotube, and carbon nanofoam. All three of these are made of nanocarbons,
products of the new nanotechnology. Nanocarbons are very cheap, 100 times stronger than steel,
slicker than Teflon, lightweight, and can be made very thin, made to stretch, and built into any shape -
all the things plastic can do. In addition, nanocarbon manufacturing is low- to non-polluting. Already
bowling balls, golf balls, sports equipment, and water-proof cotton balls have been made of


wide range of uses, very inexpensive
Polyethylene or polyethene is an engineering thermoplastic heavily used in consumer products. Its
name originates from the monomer ethene used to create the polymer.

In the polymer industry the name is sometimes shortened to PE, similar to how other polymers like
polypropylene and polystyrene are shortened to PP and PS, respectively. In the United Kingdom the
polymer is called polythene. (e.g. in the Beatles song Polythene Pam).

The ethene molecule (known almost universally by its non-IUPAC name ethylene), C2H4 is CH2 = CH2,
Two CH2 connected by a double bond, thus

Polyethylene is created through polymerization of ethene. It can be produced through radical

polymerization, anionic polymerization, and cationic polymerization. This is because ethene does not
have any substituent groups which influence the stability of the propagation head of the polymer. Each
of these methods results in a different type of polyethylene.


Polyethylene is classified into several different categories based mostly on its mechanical properties.
The mechanical properties of PE depend significantly on variables such as the extent and type of
branching, the crystal structure, and the molecular weight.

UHMWPE (ultra high molecular weight PE)

HDPE (high density PE)
LDPE (low density PE)
LLDPE (linear low density PE)
UHMWPE is polyethylene with a molecular weight numbering in the millions, usually between 3.1 and
5.67 million. The high molecular weight results a very good packing of the chains into the crystal
structure. This results in a very tough material. UHMWPE is made through metallocene catalysis

HDPE has little branching and thus stronger intermolecular forces and tensile strength. The lack of
branching is ensured by an appropriate choice of catalyst (e.g. Ziegler-Natta catalysts) and reaction

LDPE has many more branches than HDPE, which means that the chains do pack into the crystal
structure as well. It has therefore less strong intermolecular forces as the instantaneous-dipole induced-
dipole attraction is less. This results in a lower tensile strength and increased ductility. LDPE is created
by free radical polymerization.
LLDPE is a substantially linear polymer, with significant numbers of short branches, commonly made by
copolymerization of ethylene with longer-chain olefins.

UHMWPE is used in high modulus fibers and in bulletproof vests. The most common household use of
HDPE is in containers for milk, liquid laundry detergent, etc; the most common household use of LDPE
is in plastic bags. LLDPE is used primarily in flexible tubing.

Recently, much research activity has focused on Long Chain Branched polyethylene. This is essentially
HDPE, but has a small amount (perhaps 1 in 100 or 1000 branches per backbone carbon) of very long
branches. These materials combine the strength of HDPE with the processability of LDPE.

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food containers, appliances

Polypropylene (PP) is a thermoplastic polymer, used in a wide variety of applications, including food
packaging, textiles, laboratory equipment, and polymer banknotes. An addition polymer made from the
monomer propylene, it is unusually resistant to many chemical solvents, bases and acids.

Most commercial polypropylene has a level of crystallinity intermediate between that of low density
polyethylene (LDPE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE); its Young's modulus is also intermediate.
Although it is less tough than LDPE, it is much less brittle than HDPE. This allows polypropylene to be
used as a replacement for engineering plastics, such as ABS. Polypropylene has very good resistance
to fatigue, so that most plastic living hinges, such as those on flip-top bottles, are made from this

Polypropylene has a melting point of 320 degrees farenheit and 160 degrees celsius. Food containers
made from it will not melt in the dishwasher, and do not melt during industrial hot filling processes. For
this reason, most plastic tubs for dairy products are polypropylene sealed with aluminium foil (both heat-
resistant materials). After the product has cooled, the tub are often given lids of a cheaper (and less
heat-resistant) material, such as LDPE or polystyrene. Such containers provide a good hands-on
example of the difference in modulus, since the rubbery feeling of LDPE with respect to PP of the same
thickness is readily apparent.

A rubbery PP can be also be made by a specialized synthesis process, as discussed below. Unlike
traditional rubber, it can be melted and recycled, making it a thermoplastic elastomer.


packaging foam, food containers, disposable cups, plates and cutlery

Polystyrene is a polymer made from the monomer styrene, a liquid hydrocarbon that is commercially
manufactured from petroleum. At room temperature, polystyrene is normally a solid thermoplastic, but
can be melted at higher temperature for molding or extrusion, then resolidified. Styrene is an aromatic
monomer, and polystyrene is an aromatic polymer.

Polystyrene was first manufactured by BASF in the 1930s, and is used in numerous plastic products.
Pure solid polystyrene is a colorless, harder plastic with limited flexibility which can be cast into molds
with fine detail. Polystyrene can be transparent or can be made to take on various colors. It is
economical and is used for producing plastic model assembly kits, plastic cutlery, and many other
objects where a fairly rigid, economical plastic of any of various colors is desired. Polystyrene fabricated
into a sheet can be stamped (formed) into economic, disposable cups, glasses, bowls, lids, and other
items, especially when high strength, durability, and heat resistance are not essential. A thin layer of
transparent polystyrene is often used as an infra-red spectroscopy standard.
Polystyrene's most common use, however, is as expanded polystyrene, which is a mixture of about 5%
polystyrene and 95% air. This is the lightweight material of which coffee cups and takeaway food
containers are made. The voids filled with trapped air give expanded polystyrene low thermal
conductivity. It is also used as insulation in building structures, as packing material for cushioning inside
boxes, as non-weight bearing architectural structures (such as pillars) and also in crafts and model
building, particularly architectural models. Foamed between two sheets of paper, it makes a more-
uniform substitute for corrugated cardboard tradenamed Foamcore.

In the USA it is made by the Dow Chemical Company under the tradename Styrofoam. The word
styrofoam is often used by the general public in the United States to indicate any brand of polystyrene
foam (see genericized trademark).

Expanded polystyrene used to contain CFCs but other, more environmentally-safe blowing agents are
now used.

Because it is an aromatic hydrocarbon, polystyrene is flammable and burns with an orange-yellow flame
giving off soot, as opposed to non-aromatic hydrocarbon polymers such as polyethylene, which burn
with a light yellow flame (often with a blue tinge) and no soot.


beverage containers

Polyethylene terephthalate (aka. PET, PETE, PETP) is a plastic resin of the polyester family that is used
to make beverage, food and other liquid containers, as well as for some other thermoforming
applications. It is also one of the most important raw materials used in man-made fibers. Depending on
its processing and thermal history, it may exist both as an amorphous (transparent) and as a semi-
crystalline (opaque and white) material. It can be synthesized by a transesterification reaction between
ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate.

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fibres, toothbrush bristles, fishing line

Nylon is a synthetic polymer, a plastic, invented on February 28, 1935 by Wallace Carothers at DuPont
of Wilmington, Delaware, USA. The material was announced in 1938 and the first nylon products; a
nylon bristle toothbrush made with nylon yarn (went on sale on February 24, 1938) and more famously,
women's stockings (went on sale on May 15, 1940). Nylon fibres are now used to make many synthetic
fabrics, and solid nylon is used as an engineering material.

fibres, textiles

Polyester is a category of polymers, or, more specifically condensation polymers, which contain the
ester functional group in their main chain. Although polyesters do exist in nature, polyester generally
refers to the large family of synthetic polyesters (plastics) which includes polycarbonate and above all
polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is one of the most important thermoplastic polyesters.

The first synthetic polyester, glycerine phthalate, was used in the First World War for waterproofing.
Natural polyesters have been known since around 1830.


plumbing pipes, flooring, erotic clothing

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a widely-used plastic. In terms of revenue generated, it is one of the most
valuable products of the chemical industry. Globally, over 50% of PVC manufactured is used in
construction. As a building material PVC is cheap, and easy to assemble. In recent years, PVC has
been replacing traditional building materials such as wood, concrete and clay in many areas. Despite
appearing to be an ideal building material, concerns have been raised about the environmental and
human health costs of PVC.

Polyvinyl chloride is produced from its monomer, vinyl chloride (chemical formula CH2=CHCl). PVC is a
hard plastic that is made softer and more flexible by the addition of plasticizers, the most widely used
being phthalates.

There are many uses for PVC including vinyl siding, window profiles, gramophone records (hence the
ones made of this material are sometimes called vinyl records) pipe/plumbing/conduit fixtures, bean
bags; and, in its soft form, for clothing, upholstery (car seats), flooring, roofing membranes, electrical
cables, etc

compact discs, eyeglasses

Polycarbonates are a particular group of thermoplastics. They are easily worked, mold, and
thermoformed; as such, these plastics are very widely used in modern manufacturing. They are called
polycarbonates because they are polymers having monomers groups linked together by carbonate
groups (-O-CO-O-) in a long molecular chain.

The most common type of polycarbonate plastic is one made from Bisphenol A, where groups from
Bisphenol A are linked together by carbonate groups in a polymer chain. This polycarbonate is a very
durable material, and can be laminated to make bullet-proof "glass", though ³bullet-resistant´ would be
more accurate. The characteristics of polycarbonate are quite like those of polymethyl methacrylate
(acrylic), but polycarbonate is stronger and thus more expensive. This polymer is mainly transparent
and has better light transmission characteristics than glasses.

Polycarbonate has :
a density of 1.20 g/cm3
a use range from -100°C to +135°C
a melting point around 250°C
a refractive index equal to 1.585 ± 0.001
a light transmission index equal to 90% ± 1%
Polycarbonate is becoming more common in housewares as well as laboratories and in industry. It is
often used to create protective features, for example in banks as well as vandal-proof windows and
lighting lenses for many buildings. Other products made from polycarbonate include sunglass/eyeglass
lenses, compact discs and DVDs.

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electronic equipment cases (e.g. computer monitors, printers, keyboards)

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS, (chemical formula ) is a

common thermoplastic used to make light, rigid, moulded products such as pipes, golf club heads (used
for its good shock absorbance), enclosures and toys including LEGO Bricks. It is a copolymer made by
polymerizing styrene and acrylonitrile in the presence of polybutadiene. The proportions can vary from
15% to 35% acrylonitrile, 5% to 30% butadiene and 40% to 60% styrene. The result is a long chain of
polybutadiene criss-crossed with shorter chains of poly(styrene-co-acrylonitrile). The nitrile groups from
neighbouring chains, being polar, attract each other and bind the chains together, making ABS stronger
than pure polystyrene. The styrene gives the plastic a shiny, impervious surface. The butadiene, a
rubbery substance, provides resilience even at low temperatures. ABS can be used between -25°C and
Production of 1 kg of ABS requires the equivalent of about 2 kg of oil for raw materials and energy.

Today, ABS is produced through a special process called grafting, rather than the copolymerization of
acrylonitrile, styrene, and butadiene. In grafting, butadiene is polymerized first, then the cyanide and
phenyl groups are added through a special chemical reaction.


food packaging

Polymerizing vinylide chloride with monomers such as acrylic esters and unsaturated carboxyl groups,
forming long chains of vinylide chloride. The copolymerization results in a film with molecules bound so
tightly together that very little gas or water can get through. The result is a barrier against oxygen,
moisture, chemicals and heat-qualities used to protect food, consumer and industrial products. PVDC is
resistant to oxygen, water, acids, bases, and solvents.


heat resistant, low-friction coatings

Teflon is the brand name of a polymer compound discovered by Roy J. Plunkett (1910-1994) of DuPont
in 1938 and introduced as a commercial product in 1946.

Teflon is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a polymer of fluoride and ethylene.

Teflon is also used as the trade name for a polymer with similar properties, perfluoroalkoxy polymer
resin (PFA)

PTFE has the lowest coefficient of friction of any solid material. It is used as a non-stick coating for pans
and other cookware. PTFE is very unreactive, and so is often used in containers and pipework for
reactive chemicals. Its melting point varies between 260 °C (FEP) and 327 °C (PTFE), depending on
which specific Teflon polymer is being discussed.

PTFE is sometimes said to be a spin-off from the US space program with more down-to-earth
applications; this is an urban legend, as teflon cooking pans were commonplace before Yuri Gagarin's
flight in 1961. PTFE was discovered serendipitously by Roy Plunkett of DuPont in 1938, while
attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant, when the perfluorethylene polymerized in its storage
container. DuPont patented it in 1941, and registered the Teflon trademark in 1944.

Its first significant use was in the Manhattan Project, as a material to contain highly-reactive uranium
hexafluoride, when it was known as K416.

It was first sold commercially in 1946 and by 1950, DuPont was producing over a million pounds
(weight) per year in Virginia.

Teflon has been supplemented with another DuPont product, Silverstone, a three-coat fluoropolymer
system that produces a more durable finish than Teflon. Silverstone was released in 1976.

Amongst many other industrial applications, PTFE is used to coat certain types of hardened, armour-
piercing bullets, so as to reduce the amount of wear on the firearm's rifling. These are often mistakenly
referred to as "cop-killer" bullets on account of PTFE's supposed ability to ease a bullet's passage
through body armour. Any armour-piercing effect is, however, purely a function of the bullet's velocity
and rigidity rather than a property of PTFE.
PTFE has excellent electrical properties especially at radio frequencies, making it eminently suitable for
use as an insulator in cables and connector assemblies. Combined with its high melting temperature
this makes it the material of choice as a high performance substitute for the weaker and more meltable
polyethylene that is commonly used in low-cost applications.

Due to its low friction, it is used for applications where sliding action of parts is needed: bearings,
bushings, gears, slide plates, etc. In these applications it performs significantly better than nylon and
acetal; it is comparable with UHMWPE, where teflon displays lower resistance to wear than UHMWPE.
For these applications, versions of teflon with mineral oil or molybdenum disulfide embedded as
additional lubricants in its matrix are being manufactured.

insulation foam, upholstery foam

A polyurethane is any polymer consisting of a chain of organic units joined by urethane links. It is used
in adhesives, elastomers, foams (both foam rubber and rigid materials), fibers, seals, gaskets,
condoms, carpet underlayment, and hard parts.


Polyurethane can be made in a variety of textures and hardnesses by varying the particular monomers
used and adding other substances.

Softer polyurethane can be made by adding flexible Polyethylene glycol segments between urethane
links. This strategy is used to make spandex fibers, as well as foam rubber. Careful control of
viscoelastic properties can lead to memory foam, which is much softer at skin temperature than at room

Polyurethane foam (including foam rubber) can be produced by adding a small amount of water to one
of the liquid precursors of polyurethane before they are mixed together. This modifies the polymerization
reaction, causing carbon dioxide to be released as the material cures. Gas is generated throughout the
liquid, creating relatively uniform bubbles which then harden to form a solid foam as polymerization
progresses. The small proportion of reactions affected by the water result in urea linkages -NC(O)N-,
rather than urethane linkages, so that the resulting material should technically be called poly(urethane-

insulating parts in electrical fixtures (it is a thermoseting plastic, aka phenol formaldehyde or phenolic
resin, that can be molded by heat and pressure when mixed with a filler like woodflour or can be cast in
it's unfilled liquid form.)

While commonly referred to as Bakelite, the correct generic designation is phenolics. Phenolics are
heat-resistant, thermosetting plastics based on a chemically stable resin
(polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, the first plastic). Bakelite was developed about 1907-1909 by
Dr. Leo Baekeland, an American chemist of Belgian descent. It is formed by combining phenol and
formaldehyde under heat and pressure. Radios, telephones and electrical insulators were made of
phenolics in the past due to its insulating and heat-resistant properties.

Bakelite distributor rotorDue to its hardness and durability when cooled, it was considered as a material
for making pennies during World War II, due to copper being needed for shell casings. Several patterns
were made in 1942, but steel was used instead in 1943 and recycled shell casings in 1944 and 1945.

Bakelite Corp. was formed in 1922 from General Bakelite Co., Condensite Corp. and Redmanol Co. The
company was acquired by Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. in 1938.
Bakelite Limited was formed in 1927 from the amalgamation of three suppliers of phenol formaldehyde
materials: the Damard Lacquer Company Limited of Birmingham; Mouldensite Limited of Darley Dale
and Redmanol Limited of London. Around 1928, A new factory opened in Tyseley, Birmingham in
September 1931. It was demolished in 1998.

Phenolics are little used in consumer products today due to the cost and complexity of its production
and its brittle nature, but old phenolic products, especially kitchenware and toys, have become quite
collectible in recent years. One prevalent use for phenolics because of its heat-resistance is in molded
disc brake cylinders.

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