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Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world. The polymer is used in various applications, ranging from food packaging to construction. Synthetic plastic is made from natural gas, which can be found in abundance around the world.
Plastic is something we have become very familiar with. But what is it exactly? What are the different types? How is plastic made? In this blog, let’s look in detail at everything you need to know about plastic production, plastic recycling and plastic pollution.
Plastic is one item that has taken over and occupied all parts of our lives and has infiltrated every single industry possible. It was initially seen as an invention that really made the lives of us humans simpler and more convenient. But as years went by, the same plastic became the bane of our existence. To understand the plastic issue in its entirety, it is essential to understand how plastic products are made in the first place.
There are basically two different ways plastics can be synthesized – they can be synthetic or derived from renewable bioproducts. Synthetic plastics are made from crude oil, natural gas, or coal. In the most popular scenario, plastics are derived from crude oils as these are the most cost-effective ways to get the job done.
But we must also note that this is also the most harmful way plastics are derived. Based on how the plastic compounds interact with each other, there are mainly six types of plastics which are – thermoplastics, thermosets, amorphous plastics, semi-crystalline plastics, homopolymers, and copolymers.
In this article, for the sake of convenience, we will only be talking about artificially synthesized plastics. The main ingredients in these plastics are crude oils, coal, and natural gas. To procure these materials, a lot of mining activity needs to take place.
The first step before we actually go into the process of making plastic is distilling the raw materials so that you are able to get the single compound you need and separate the stuff you don’t need from it. This process takes place in an oil refinery on a massive scale. These are also referred to as hydrocarbon refineries or Naphtha. This process is key in the making of plastic.
In this section of the article, we will give the step-by-step process that is used to make plastic on an industrial level.
To make plastic, the first requirement is to procure raw materials. These raw materials include coal, crude oils, and natural gas. Procuring these is just the first step.
Once the raw material has been procured, it can’t be used right away. It is mixed with a lot of impurities that need to be filtered out. This filtration and refining process takes place in oil refineries. In simpler terms, the crude oil that is extracted gets taken to a refinery where it is broken down into different petroleum products. From this refining process, we are able to get monomers that help us in the making of plastics.
These monomers are also the building blocks of plastic polymers. You may be wondering, how the refining process takes place – All the crude oil is put inside a furnace and heated up. Post this, it is sent to a distillation unit. In this distillation unit, all the crude oil gets broken down into smaller and lighter compounds called fractions. Out of all the fractions that are obtained, the one that is the most key to the process of plastic making is naphtha.
This is probably the trickiest part of the production process. In this part of the process, compounds like ethylene, propylene, butylene, etc get converted into polymers that have higher molecular weights. This also means that what were initially monomers get converted into polymers. This is why this step is referred to as polymerization. For plastic making, there are two types of polymerization that take place –
> Addition polymerization – In this type of polymerization, a monomer connects to the next one (a dimer) and the chain keeps continuing. Basically, you keep adding more monomers to the initial one. To facilitate such a type of polymerization, a catalyst is used. The most common catalyst used is a type of peroxide. Examples of plastics that use additional polymerization are polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride.
> Condensation polymerization – This type of polymerization involves joining 2 or more monomers that are different. The process of condensation happens because smaller molecules like water are removed. This process is also facilitated by catalysts. Examples of plastics made from condensation polymerization are polyester and nylon.
The process of compounding involves melting and mixing different materials to form one single material, in this case, plastics. Then the mixture is turned into pellets that can be molded into different items as per the need of the manufacturer. These pellets can be of different colors, opacity, and shapes. All this is done by a machine.
While there are different answers to the question, ‘How is plastic made?’ we’ll look at one of the common ways: from crude oil.
The first step in the process is extracting crude oil from the ground. For a drilling rig to be effective, it must use various tools at its disposal. This can include drill bits designed specifically for certain types of rock or soil, depending on the type of site being drilled into.
Once extracted, the heavy crude oil must be transported to a refinery to be further processed into plastics.
Once the crude oil is extracted from the ground, it must be refined before it can be used in any plastic manufacturing process. Refining is a complex process that involves distilling crude oil into different products like gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and heating oil. There are two types of refineries: integrated and traditional. Integrated refineries are large facilities where all steps in refining crude oil occur on one site. In contrast, conventional refineries process only specific parts of crude oil, such as gasoline or diesel fuels, while sending other parts to other refineries for further processing.
Fractional distillation involves heating a mixture until some components start to boil.
This process happens in the fractional distillation tower, where it separates crude oil into its various components by boiling it with steam and then cooling the mixture below its boiling point, so it condenses into liquid again. The resulting liquid is then separated into different fractions based on their boiling points at atmospheric pressure: light or gaseous fractions, middle distillates and heavy distillates. These fractions are then stored until they are needed for further processing for plastic production or transportation purposes.
Cracking is the process of breaking down large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller ones. This is done by heat and pressure in a refinery, known as catalysts. Cracking is a chemical process that involves breaking up the bonds between carbon atoms in long-chain molecules. There are two types of cracking: catalytic cracking and steam cracking.
Cracking petroleum products like crude oil allows for their use in different societal applications. The most common use for cracking is to make synthetic petroleum products such as plastics, adhesives, textiles and chemicals used in manufacturing automobiles and consumer goods.
Polymerization occurs when two or more molecules join together in a chemical reaction. When these molecules join together, they form polymers. The polymer chains can also be formed from one molecule if it is broken down into smaller units called monomers. These monomers are then linked together with other monomers to form the final polymer chain product.
Direct polymerization involves high temperature and pressure, which results in the formation of long chains of molecules that form the desired product. Indirect polymerization requires the use of chemicals that are used as catalysts for the reaction in the chemical bonds between monomers and other compounds.
The final polyethylene formed is converted into pellets which can then be shaped into plastic products through blow molding, compression molding, rotational molding or injection molding based on the applications like food packaging, plastic bags, plastic containers, and other different plastics.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel that consists of a mixture of hydrocarbons with carbon and hydrogen atoms. It is usually found at high pressure in deep underground reservoirs, where it has been trapped for millions of years by layers of rock. The main component of natural gas is methane which has been formed by methanogenic bacteria that live in anaerobic environments such as marshes or wetlands. The process of making plastic from natural gas is similar to the process of synthetic plastic creation from crude oil.
The first step is to remove any impurities from the natural gas. This can be done by using a distillation column, which separates the lighter components (hydrogen, methane) from the heavier ones (ethane, propane).
The next step is to convert these gases into liquid form using cracking. Usually, steam cracking is used which involves breaking down higher molecular weight hydrocarbons into smaller ones through heat treatment at high temperature. The final product of this step is called naphtha, a mixture of hydrocarbons that can be used for making plastics.
Then comes polymerization: combining monomers with other monomers to create polymers. In this case, ethylene and propylene are combined in an autoclave reactor system to create polyethylene (PE) via an additional reaction. PE has many uses, including making bags or containers out of plastic materials used in packaging food items while also being used as an insulating material for refrigerators or freezers.
At the end of the polymerization process, the final product looks like a powdered laundry detergent, which is then taken for molding.
Afterward comes extrusion: feeding molten plastic through a pipe cut to form plastic pellets. These plastic pellets are then used in the plastic industry to shape and create various plastic materials.
The first human-made plastic was made in 1856 in the UK by Alexander Parkes. He made the first bioplastic and called it Parkensine. Parkensine was made from cellulose nitrate. The first human-made plastic was flexible, hard, and transparent.
Over time, certain modifications were made to Parkensine and it led to it becoming Celluloid. This was done by adding some camphor to the cellulose nitrate used for making Parkensine. Celluloid was the common component used for making billiards balls.
Speaking of synthetic plastics, Leo Baekeland from Belgium invented Bakelite, a plastic that has resistance to high heat, electricity, and chemicals. A very common non-conductor. Bakelite is very popular in the electronic field.
There were and are many other items that can be used instead of plastic. Before the invention of plastic, people used wood, metal, glass, ceramic, and leather. Also, resin from trees was used. Rubber was also commonly used instead of plastic.
As our use of finite resources increases, so does our need to find ways to reuse and recycle those materials. Plastics recycling has become a major industry in itself and will only continue to grow as more people become aware of the benefits that recycling offers to their wallets and the environment.
The plastic industry has come a long way since its inception, but there are still many things you might not know about this important industry.
A lot of waste plastic isn’t recycled because many people don’t realize how harmful it is to the environment.
When landfills are full, or other options aren’t available, people often burn their trash or dump it into bodies of water — including synthetic plastics. But unlike biodegradable plastic, synthetic plastics don’t degrade in the earth or water. Instead, they break down into smaller pieces called microplastics that pollute our lands, oceans and lakes. And this becomes the major cause of plastic pollution.
Microplastics can then be eaten by fish and shellfish — or even by humans and are becoming one of the huge causes of diseases. And even when incinerators are burning them, it releases toxic chemicals into the air.
With the global plastics market only increasing, it’s high time to look for recycling ways for the plastic produced on this earth. The plastics industry is a massive industry with many uses and applications. It is also an industry that has been criticized for its environmental impact. The use of plastic can have negative consequences when it ends up in landfills and oceans, where it can take centuries to degrade. While there are many alternatives to plastic, there is no perfect replacement for all of the uses for which we currently rely on plastic.
There are several different types of plastics that are used for various purposes. Some examples include:
Each type of plastic has its own benefits and drawbacks regarding recycling potential, but they all share one common trait: they cannot be broken down into smaller organic materials that can be decomposed. So this plastic waste can harm every living creature on earth. To avoid the repercussions that plastic made and the toxic chemicals released, it’s essential to look for organic alternatives.
Due to the dark side of plastic, it takes a long time to break down and can pollute the environment if not disposed of properly.
Paper is one of the oldest materials used by humans, and it’s still going strong! It is a renewable resource that can easily be recycled or reused. Even if you’re using paper cups for your coffee daily, you can feel good about how eco-friendly they are compared to plastic or styrofoam cups.
Cloth is another great alternative to plastic. It’s reusable and washable, so there’s no need to create more waste when you’ve got options like cloth towels and napkins at home or work.
Glass is another versatile material that can be used for virtually any application where plastic is currently being used. Unlike plastic water bottles, glass ones are completely recyclable and will never go away; they’ll just keep getting recycled repeatedly!
Apart from these, you can use bio-based plastics, substances made from vegetable fats or any other materials made from renewable materials to reduce your plastic consumption.
While we recognize that the invention of plastic has revolutionized so many industries, it has also plagued our planet. There are many alternatives to plastic that can be used in our day-to-day lives, like biodegradable plastics and other organic materials that won’t harm the lives on earth.
To spread the importance of recycling and to rid our landfills and oceans of plastic, Plastic Collectors do all they can to promote the importance of recycling and also compensate them for their efforts. This is a growing collective of driven and hard-working people all over the globe. Plastic Collectors are working toward a plastic-free world by motivating people to recycle plastic and providing their remuneration in the process. Click here to know how you can join the cause.