What is the difference between polymers and plastics?
In our series ‘Stahl Explains’, our chemists and researchers will give clear answers to most frequently asked questions. This week André Derksen explains the difference between polymers and plastics. The short answer is that all plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics.
Plastics is the generic name given to a large group of materials that we encounter in everyday life. We know the names of many plastics; nylon (used in fibres and textile), polyester (used in fibres and textiles), polyethylene (used in plastic bottles, plastic bags), PVC (used in plumbing pipes, electrical wire insulation), polycarbonate (used in compact discs) and PET (used in drinking bottles). A key property of plastics is that they are malleable at higher temperatures - they have plasticity - and so can be molded into solid objects. Plastics are usually man-made polymers, and are most commonly derived from petrochemicals, though bio-based plastics are also well known, like polylactic acid.
Polymers are materials that are made up of large molecules, with many repeating subunits. Polymers, both natural and synthetic, are created via the polymerization of small molecules, known as monomers. Both synthetic and natural polymers play essential roles in everyday life. Polymers range from familiar synthetic plastics to natural biopolymers, like DNA and proteins, which are fundamental to biological structure and function. Examples of natural polymeric materials are hemp, wool, silk, natural rubber and cellulose (the main constituent of wood and paper). Natural polymeric materials are not considered to be plastics, but they are polymers.
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