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Plastic is one item that has taken over and occupied all parts of our lives and has infiltrated through every single industry possible. Plastic 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 has become the bane of our existence. To understand the plastic issue in its entirety, it is important to understand how plastic is made in the first place.
There are basically two different ways plastics can be synthesized – they can be synthetic or derived from renewable bioproducts. The 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 the 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 –
1. 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 type of polymerization, a catalyst is used. The most common catalyst used is a type of peroxide. Examples of plastics that use addition polymerization are polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride.
2. 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.
The first human-made plastic was made in 1856 in the UK by Alexander Parkes. He made the first bioplastic and called it the 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.
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.
To spread the importance of recycling and ridding our landfills and oceans of plastic, Plastic Collectors do all they can to promote the importance of recycling and also compensates them for their efforts. This is a growing collective of driven and hard-working people all over the globe. Plastic Collectors is working towards a plastic free world by motivating people to recycle plastic and provide them remuneration in the process. Click here to know how you can join the cause.