The importance of plastics in OECD economies

Plastics cover a large range of different materials and uses. Since the introduction of celluloid in the 1870s, plastic has been used in an increasing number of products. The commercial development of plastics began in the 1930s, when polystyrene, acrylic polymers and PVC started to be mass-produced from petroleum. During the Second World War, the production of polyethylene, polystyrene, polyester, nylon and silicones grew, and polyethylene terephthalate was discovered in 1941. Since the 1950s the manufacture of plastics has grown into a major industry. Sales of plastics increased, primarily due to greater demand for thermoplastic plastics such as polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene and polyethylene. For example, consumption of polystyrene doubled, due in part to the use of polybutadiene as an impact modifier to improve its strength.

Development of reinforced fibreglass led to a 20-fold increase in consumption of unsaturated polyester between 1954 and 1960. New production methods resulted in increased use of polyethylene, including its use in containers. The use of polyester, lycra and nylon in clothing grew. In the 1960-70s there was increasing use of plastics in engineering and electronic applications and medicine. This was then followed by a slump in plastic production due to rising oil prices and the world energy crisis of 1973-1975, although new manufacturing techniques resulted in an increased use of PET. More recently, in the 1980-90s, there was accelerated growth in the manufacture of plastics due to widespread applications in the electronics and communications industry and increased use of plastics in cars, due in part to the development of high temperature polymers. In addition, plastics are increasingly used in a variety of packaging applications.

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