Plastic

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These objects are all made out of plastic.
Amber, a naturally-occurring plastic.

A plastic is a material that can change its shape. Many things are made of plastics, usually because making them the right shape is easy. There are many types of plastic. Some can be shaped only when they are freshly made; then they become hard. Others are thermoplastic and can be softened by heating them.

Most plastics are man-made; they do not occur in nature. The process of making plastics is usually quite complicated. Most of the materials that are called plastic are polymers. Polymers are long chains of atoms bonded to each other. In most plastics, the long chain is a chain of carbon atoms.

People experimented with plastics based on natural polymers for a very long time. Alexander Parkes, an English inventor (1813-1890), created the earliest form of plastic in 1855. It was hard but flexible and transparent, and he called it "Parkesine."

Old plastics are usually thrown away and put in landfills. Some plastics release toxic fumes when burned. Plastics are often recycled so they won't become waste.

Plastics are mostly petrochemicals, made from natural gas or from petroleum, a type of oil. Chemical engineers refine the petroleum which goes through a heating process. It develops ethylene and propylene, which are the chemical building blocks for many plastics. These chemicals are then combined with other chemicals to produce a polymer.

Well-known plastics, and their use[change | change source]