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Table of Contents


3Plastics End Products

4The Raw Materials and Forms of Energy Input

5The Processes used in the Plastics Industry

6Environmental Pollution and the Risk Factor

7The Economic Scale of the Polymer Industry




The plastics industry is one of the many chemical industries that has had the greatest impact in human life. Ironically, not so many people are quite aware of the extent this industry has had in virtually every aspect of their life. It is practically impossible to imagine a world without plastics today. In the past half a century, it is estimated that the plastics industry in the US and Australia has been growing by an average of 8% and 6.7% per year respectively. The recent years, however, has seen this growth slightly decline in developed countries and a dramatic increase witnessed in most developing countries such as the Far East and Africa (Hennlock, 2015).

This paper, therefore, presents an overview of the plastics industry, also known as the polymer industry with respect to its impact and relevance to the society at large. The essay discusses some of the end products for plastics, their raw materials, the forms of energy input, the various processes used in production, environmental pollution, and the economic scale of the polymer industry.

Plastics End Products

There are a variety of products made from plastics. The product made is largely dependent on the type of plastics used. For Polyvinyl Chloride plastics commonly known as PVC, some of the end products include wire sheathings, pipes and fittings, credit cards, and window and door frames. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) is another type of plastics whose end products include such items as bottle tops, irrigation pipes, packaging films, and flexible bottles (Schönmayr, 2017).

The other type of polymers is called the High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) best known for its superior chemical resistance. Some of the commodities made out of HDPE include bottles for bleach, detergent, non-carbonated drinks, and milk; toys, dustbins, snack food boxes, buckets, and garden furniture. Polystyrene (PS) plastics are also a type of plastics whose use is mainly for such products as video cases, cloth hangers, disposable utensils such as cutlery and cups, yoghurt containers, and fast food trays (Andrady, 2015).

Other commodities that can be made in the polymer industries include plastic wood, roasting bags, synthetic leather products, biscuit wrappers, crates, hinged lunch boxes, and drinking straws. Say for their environmental degradation effect, these polymer products have been of immense significance to humankind. They have not only made human life much easier but they are also extremely cost friendly compared to other products made from other competitive chemical industries such as steel (Dominguez, 2016; Andrady, 2015).

The Raw Materials and Forms of Energy Input

Plastics are basically a product of organic materials. Strictly speaking, the manufacture of plastics is dependent on such organic raw materials as the crude oil, natural gas, cellulose, coal, and salt. As a major raw material in the production of plastics in the polymer industry, crude oil is first processed to enhance the separation of the many compounds inside it. To begin with, the crude oil is first distilled in order to produce less complex fractions of the raw material depending on the hydrocarbon chains inside them. Essentially, these are the different types of plastics such as the High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and Polystyrene (PS) (Hennlock, 2015; Schönmayr, 2017).

In the recent years, plastics have majorly been manufactured from such petrochemical sources as gas and oil from fossils. Just like any other chemical process, energy input is a major requirement in the plastics industry. The amount of energy required in this production process is directly proportional to the amount of fossil fuels used. This implies that an equal amount of energy from fossil fuels is consumed every time a similar amount of plastics is produced in the manufacturing process of plastics. That notwithstanding, there is a school of thought that reasons out that the more the lightweight plastics are used, the lesser the need for the use of fossil fuels e.g. in the transportation sector (Schönmayr, 2017).

Whereas there have been fears of the likelihood of depletion of crude oil – a major raw material in the plastics industry – the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) confirms that there are enough deposits to sustain the world up to 2040. Thereafter, however, there is no assurance of future sustainability. According to Dominguez (2016), the current available crude oil deposits is sufficient to sustain the continuous production of plastics, at least to meet the current demand for the same.

The Processes used in the Plastics Industry

The production of plastics involves three main processes. To begin with, the distillation process is done so as to isolate the larger crude oil mixtures into smaller packages also referred to as fractions. Ideally, these fractions are a combination of carbon and hydrogen elements, commonly known as the hydrocarbon chains. For the manufacture of plastics, a type of fraction called naphtha is usually used (Schönmayr, 2017).

The distillation process is then followed by another important chemical process referred to as polymerisation – a catalyst driven process. Simply put, the polymerisation process entails the formation of long chains of polymers from their respective monomers such as pentene, propylene, ethylene etc. the nature and characteristics of the end polymer obtained is dependent on the type of the monomers used. Important to note is that in polymerisation, no by product is produced after the reaction; only polymers are produced. On the contrary, polycondensation leads to the formation of both the condensation polymer as well as other by products such as ammonia and water molecules. Again, the type of polymer produced in the end depends on the type of monomers reacted together (Schönmayr, 2017).

Environmental Pollution and the Risk Factor

Despite its numerous benefits to humankind, the plastics industry has had its own fair share of disadvantages. This mainly arises from the fact that plastics are naturally non-biodegradable.

To begin with, plastic products have been discovered to have detrimental effects in the life of humans and animals. According to Andrady (2015), exposure to plastic components causes such health and reproduction problems as impotence in men less interest in sexual intercourse in both men and women. Secondly, owing to its non-biodegradable nature, plastics are a major menace to rivers, seas, oceans, and other waterways through blockage. In addition, when such plastic components get into aquatic environment, they may affect the aquatic life through the swallowing of the plastics or even through the chemical components of the plastics which may negatively affect the health of the marine animals (Andrady, 2015; Schönmayr, 2017).

Some plastics such PVC have some chlorine components, and hence when permeates into the soil or water systems, it may cause the water to be contaminated. When such water is then consumed by living creatures, they may be utterly affected health wise. In recent years, it has also been established that microorganisms in landfills help in breaking down some types of plastics such as nylon. According to Dominguez (2016), such bacterial activity yields methane which when released into the atmosphere causes global warming.

Last but not the least, the non-biodegradable nature of plastics makes them remain on the surface of their respective environments. This in itself not only poses a great danger to the living creatures within the environment but also makes the environment generally ugly and unpleasant (Andrady, 2015).

The Economic Scale of the Polymer Industry

Cheap as most of the plastic products may seem, the plastics industry has potentially been the key driver of the world economy. There has been an exponential growth in the use of plastics within the past half a century except for the recent years where alternative products are being advocated for. The global production capacity of plastics has increased between 1964 and 2014 by over 290 million metric tons from 15 million metric tons to 306 million metric tons in 2014 (Hennlock, 2015).

According to Berins & Society of the Plastics Industry (2011), plastic packaging remains the most common use of plastic materials with a total percentage of 25% of all the available plastics globally. Given their affordability and lightweight, plastic packaging have increasingly been adopted and used world over. Statistics have shown that as at 2010, the total market value of plastic packaging was approximated to $300 billion globally. Out of this, the US and Australia had a national share of $20 billion and $18 billion respectively (Hennlock, 2015; Berins & Society of the Plastics Industry, 2011).

On the flipside, the economic overview of plastics in terms of wastes is wanting. Research, for example, shows that the current mass of plastic waste in the water systems is estimated at 150 million tonnes. Going by this trend, therefore, it is projected that the total amount of plastic waste in the major water systems such as oceans may as well outweigh that of the fish in those water bodies in the next three decades or so. This will reduce the economic output of fish in the global market by approximately $2 billion by 2050 (Hennlock, 2015; Berins & Society of the Plastics Industry, 2011).


It is blatantly clear that the benefits of the plastics industry are insurmountable. That notwithstanding, the drawbacks that come with the plastics cannot be underestimated. In order to improve the overall economic significance and the prevalence of the plastics industry, there is need to research more on ways of reducing the negative impacts of the plastic products. This even as most research to this regard has recommended the adoption of alternative products to the plastic ones. The contemporary research, however, has attempted to delve into the plastics engineering as an aspect of the plastics industry (Berins & Society of the Plastics Industry, 2011). This has been as a result of the supposed excellent mechanical and thermal characteristics that plastic engineered products have compared to the conventional plastics. In conclusion, therefore, the plastic industry still remains a major aspect of the chemical industry that ought to be retained and improved for the betterment of human life.


Andrady, A. L. (2015). Plastics and environmental sustainability. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Berins, M. L., & Society of the Plastics Industry. (2011). SPI plastics engineering handbook of the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Domínguez, . M. P. (2016). Industrial biorenewables: A practical viewpoint. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Hennlock, M., et al. (2015). Economic policy instruments for plastic waste: a review with Nordic perspectives. Copenhagen K, Nordic Council of Ministers.

Schönmayr, D. (2017). Automotive recycling, plastics, and sustainability: The recycling renaissance.