About plastics

Plastics are one of the most versatile materials around. Their unique qualities – which include great strength, versatility and durability – allow all of us to enjoy lifestyles that otherwise would not be possible.

Plastic packaging preserves

Take packaging for example. Plastics packaging protects and preserves perishable food for longer, so waste is reduced while the taste and nutritional value of food is maintained. In the United Kingdom, waste is just 2% compared to between 40% and 50% in the developing world, due mainly to plastics packaging. A cucumber loses moisture quickly and would be unsaleable within three days were it not protected by just 1.5 grams of plastic (1). And because plastic packaging is transparent, people can look at food without having to touch it. This cuts down on bruising and other damage.

Durable for building and construction

In the building industry, plastics can be found in everything from window frames and insulation to water- and waste-pipes, thanks to their durability and resistance to corrosion. Plastic provides energy-saving insulation against cold and heat, and is effective at reducing noise pollution. And plastic is perfect for surfaces and floor coverings because it is easy to clean and maintain.

Saving transport costs

Plastics are lightweight, corrosion-free, and easily moulded into complex shapes without the need for assembly or fastening systems. These properties make them perfect for use in planes, trains, boats and cars. With plastics, automotive designers can balance high performance, competitive pricing, style and reliability with comfort, safety, fuel efficiency and minimal environmental impact.

A modern car, for example, contains around 11% plastic, which reduces the vehicle's weight and, consequently, emissions. Some 22% of the Airbus A380 (the world's largest commercial aircraft) is built from carbon reinforced plastics, which helps reduce the fuel used per passenger to a rate comparable to that of an economical family car. Plastic composite panels in Swiss trains has led to a 25% reduction in weight, leading to significant energy savings (1).

Electrical and electronics

Designers of electrical goods love plastics because of their performance benefits and efficient use of resources; weight reduction, miniaturisation, electrical and thermal insulation. From simple cables and household appliances to mobile phones and DVD players, significant parts of all modern equipment are made of plastics. The unique electrical insulating properties of plastics make them suitable for manufacturing safe and efficient power supplies.

Growing food with plastics

The growing use of plastics in agriculture has enabled farmers to increase their crop production and quality of food while restricting the pressure on our environment. In agriculture, plastics are used to help create the right conditions for optimal food production where those conditions are not naturally or cost-effectively present. Fruit and vegetables grown under plastic structures are usually of better quality than those grown in an open field.

Plastics in healthcare

Today's health care systems have benefited greatly from plastics medical products that we take for granted: disposable syringes, intravenous blood bags, heart valves, artificial corneas and hearing aids. Plastics packaging is particularly suitable for medical applications, thanks to their exceptional barrier properties and compatibility with other materials.

Revolutionizing sport and leisure

Plastics have revolutionized sports. From tracks on which Olympic athletes pursue new records, to running and hiking shoes, clothing, safety equipment (helmets, kneepads) and stadium construction (water and drainage pipes, seats, roofing), modern sports rely on plastics. Almost every type of ball will contain plastic materials. Today's shock-absorbing, powerful tennis racquets are built using plastics composite materials. Even today’s racing yachts use advanced carbon fibre compounds to help taking ocean boat-racing to a new level.

Plastics are economically sustainable

The plastics industry contributes significantly to the global economy. It drives innovation, improves quality of life, and facilitates resource efficiency and climate protection. In Europe alone, more than 1.6 million people work in over 50,000 plastics-related companies, generating turnover in the region of €300 billion per year. The plastics industry is socially inclusive and offers a wide range of worthwhile careers with considerable room for career development, progression and training.

Plastics are socially sustainable

Plastics are also socially sustainable and make a major contribution to safety. The plastics used in cars, for example, reduce weight and enable additional safety features such as air bags to be included. Plastic foams provide the necessary shock absorbency to be used in life-saving devices such as bicycle helmets. In modern day healthcare, we have seen how plastics play an essential role. Plastics products are used in surgery, healthcare products, pharmaceuticals, drug delivery systems and medical packaging.

Plastics help sustain our environment

Plastics have a very good environmental profile, when you consider that just 4% of the world’s oil production is used to make plastics. Plastic products are already helping to improve people’s lives every day. Lightweight and durable plastics are used in our cars and aircraft, making them more fuel efficient, more comfortable and safer. Plastics are used to keep our houses warm and dry. And when plastics have outlived their usefulness, they can be recycled. If this is not economically or environmentally efficient, plastics can be incinerated to provide a valuable source of energy.

Protecting the environment through Life Cycle Assessment

The plastics industry supports rigorous and thorough Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the sustainability of its products. A complete LCA provides environmental impact data not only on materials but also on product manufacturing, transportation, service life and end–of–life options (recycling, disposal, energy recovery). It also provides a thorough evaluation of the benefits of a product and makes comparisons with alternatives. Plastic products generally rate very favourably compared to alternatives when evaluated in this way.

Corporate social responsibility

Like many corporations, the plastics industry regulates its activities to ensure that it complies with the spirit of the law, ethical standards, and international norms. Using Corporate Social Responsibility, the plastics industry embraces accountability for its actions, and encourages a positive impact through its activities on the environment with consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders, and all other members of the public.

Helping to create a better life with plastics

Plastic products are already helping to improve people’s lives every day, while conserving natural resources and helping to protect the environment for tomorrow. No other industry can manufacture products and materials that help us to do more with less and contribute to a more efficient use of resources.

References

(1) British plastics federation: Recycling and Sustainability