Uses of major plastics

Given their versatility, it is not surprising that plastics have found a large number of commercial applications. Products based upon the production of plastics include the following (APME 2000b):

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE): Containers, toys, housewares, industrial wrapping and film, gas pipes.
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE): Film, bags, toys, coatings, containers, pipes, cable insulation.
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): Bottles, film, food packaging, synthetic insulation.
  • Polypropylene (PP): Film, battery cases, microwave containers, crates, car parts, electrical components.
  • Polystyrene (PS): Electrical appliances, thermal insulation, tape cassettes, cups, plates.
  • Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC): Window frames, pipes, flooring, wallpaper, bottles, cling film, toys, guttering, cable insulation, credit cards, medical products.

Table 3.1 gives an indication of the proportional use of plastic resins in different commercial product streams in 2000 in the United States.

Table 3.1. Use of plastic resins in the US (%)

Industrial machinery

1

Adhesives/Inks/Coatings

2

Furniture and furnishings

4

Electrical/Electronic

4

Transportation

5

Exports

10

Others

12

Consumer and institutional

14

Building and construction

22

Packaging

The role of plastics in packaging is particularly important. Three types of plastics play a particularly important role in packaging:

  1. PET is clear, tough, heat-resistant and provides a barrier to gas and moisture. It is used mainly in drink bottles but also in fibre applications, using recycled materials.
  2. HDPE is stiff, resistant to chemicals and moisture but permeable to gas. It is easy to process and mould and is used in bottles, tubs and bags.
  3. LDPE is used primarily in films for wrapping and covering.

Table 3.2. gives data on the demand for PET in Western Europe for different uses in 1999 (actual), as well as a forecast for 2004. Food contact containers make up almost two-thirds of the total demand, with fibre the second-most important use.

Table 3.2. Western European demand for PET for 1999 (actual) and 2004 (forecast) (k tonnes)

Market sector

Total market size incl.

% penetration by recycled

Tonnage used

virgin

PET

1999

2004

1999

2004

1999

2004

Fibre

448

605

20

33

88

199

Food contact containers

1 224

1 955

< 1

16

5

314

Non-food containers

208

247

< 1

14

1

35

A-sheet

89

134

6

35

16

47

Strapping

27

40

22

75

6

30

Injection moulding

100

122

2

12

2

15

Polyols

30

52

3

33

1

17

Total

2 126

3 155

6

21

118

657

Source: WRAP (2002).

Plastics offer significant resource savings in packaging as they reduce the amount of material needed to provide the same function as other materials, but are also much lighter, resulting in considerable transport cost savings. This advantage comes at a cost. Plastics are relatively bulky so that whilst plastics have contributed to a reduction in the weight of waste, this is not matched in terms of volume. This low weight/volume ratio causes problems in the economics of recycling where volume becomes a critical factor in transport costs.

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