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A brief history of the major plastic polymers

Plastics are such a vital part of modern life; we have become unaware of how much we rely on them every day. However, many plastic polymers have only been around for a few decades. Life before these innovative materials was very different. They have made modern living simpler and safer, thanks to their durability, affordability and versatility.

The first major discovery of a plastic polymer was made in 1862. Since then, new polymers have been developed and discovered continuously – rapidly increasing from the end of the 1920s. Here is a brief history of each of the major plastic polymers and how they have changed the way in which we live.

Parkesine 

First developed in 1862, Parkesine was the first man-made plastic. It’s inventor, Alexander Parkes, revealed the plant-based polymer at the Great International Exhibition in London. Parkesine is a transparent and mouldable plastic that retains its shape when cooled. It was first marketed as a cheaper alternative to rubber, allowing users to mould and create whatever they needed.

Celluloid

In 1865, John Wesley Hyatt developed a new way to make billiard balls from cellulose nitrate. This material was far cheaper than the traditional ivory balls. Soon afterward, companies began manufacturing numerous products from celluloid, such as bowls and combs, as a cheaper alternative to bone, tortoiseshell and other expensive materials.

Rayon

This modified celluloid polymer was developed in Paris by Louis Marie Hilaire Bernigaut in 1891. He was looking for a way to manufacture a substitute for silk – a polymer that could be extruded into thin, shiny strands and woven together to form a silky fabric. Bernigaut called the polymer rayon because it had a shiny appearance that reflected rays of light.

Bakelite

In 1907, a completely synthetic plastic was developed that retained its shape and form, even under stress and heat. Bakelite became extremely popular in the 1920s when numerous products were manufactured from the polymer. Plastic jewellery, telephones and clocks became popular as people embraced the unique appearance of Bakelite.

Cellophane

Cellophane was invented by a Swiss chemist in 1912 who was looking to create a waterproof tablecloth. Later, in 1927, cellophane was used to wrap sweets and candies which really punted its use in the food industry to new heights. This moisture-resistant polymer kept the sweets fresh for longer as water vapour in the air could not affect the sugary treats within the wrapping.

Vinyl

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) was developed in the 1920s to replace natural rubber. It quickly became known as one of the most versatile plastics. It is commonly used to make medical tubing, plumbing pipes and construction products. PVC can be both rigid and flexible, which was why it became so popular in a number of industries.

Polyethylene

This widely-used plastic was first developed in the 1930s in the United Kingdom. Polyethylene is the most popular polymer to date and is the mainstay of modern packaging. It is used to create polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles, high-density polyethylene (PE-HD) containers and low-density (PE-LD) shopping bags. 

Polyvinylidene Chloride

Not to be confused with PVC, this polymer was discovered by accident in 1933. It was initially used to protect military and naval equipment from the effects of saltwater at sea due to its ability to cling to other materials and form a protective barrier. Polyvinylidene chloride is also used as a protective film for food packaging and is marketed as “Saran wrap”.

Nylon

This polymer changed the entire textiles and clothing industry. Nylon was developed in 1939, after which DuPont unveiled women’s stockings made from nylon at the World Fair in New York. Nylon quickly became an affordable man-made alternative to silk and cotton, finding particular use in military clothing during World War II.

Polyester

Polyester was first discovered in the 1940s, but only gained significant popularity in the 1950s. DuPont marketed a new fabric under the name “Dacron”, which was simply woven polyester strands. This became the first washable synthetic fabric and the textile industry has never been the same.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene (PP) came about in the 1950s but it began with a legal battle over its true inventors. It is a highly-versatile plastic that is used to manufacture a variety of moulded products, such as dairy tubs for butter and ice cream, plastic furniture, buckets, car bumpers, fibres and woven cloth. It can be used in almost all plastic applications.

Polystyrene foam

Also called expanded polystyrene, this polymer was developed in 1954 by Dow Chemicals. The company introduced the polymer under the brand name “Styrofoam” and was marketed as a lightweight protective packaging product. It is used to make packaging peanuts, takeaway food containers and coffee cups.

These polymers have become so widely used that we don’t even notice the importance of plastics in our daily lives. The innovations that led to the development of some of these products are often underappreciated. Plastics have a vital role to play in modern living, the economy and even the environment.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Plastic packaging type 6 – PS

Plastics are highly valuable materials that make modern life possible. They keep our goods protected, our food fresh and are vital for the functioning of daily life, whether we are aware of it or not. Plastic packaging has many advantages, including economic benefits and ease of recycling or reuse. Plastics need to be recycled properly in order to maximise their economic value and to minimise their environmental impact.

To understand more about plastics, we will shed some light on the different types of polymer, their benefits and their recyclability properties, including what products can be made from recycled plastic. We will go according to the material identification codes found on plastics. These are numerical symbols from one to seven that are used to identify the type of plastic.

This coding system is used around the globe by recyclers, waste management companies and plastics manufacturers. It enables them to separate and sort plastics so that they can be processed according to the main polymer present. All plastic packaging should display these material identification codes. The sixth polymer used for plastic packaging is polystyrene (PS).

What is PS?

Polystyrene is a lightweight polymer that comes in two types; high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) and expandable polystyrene (PS-E or EPS). It was first sold commercially in the 1930s as an economic plastic to enhance food hygiene and extend product shelf-lives. PS is commonly used in the food and beverage industry as takeaway containers, vegetable punnets, disposable cutlery and plastic cups. PS is also recycled into lightweight cement blocks for the building industry.

Its lightweight nature makes PS an energy-efficient plastic to produce with a low carbon footprint. This plastic is in high demand by recyclers as it is used to manufacture seedling trays, combs, rulers, picture frames and clothing hangers. It is the sixth-most processed polymer by South African recycling facilities. Due to the well-established waste collection network and the fact that plastic food and drink containers form a large portion of our waste, 5572 tonnes of lightweight polystyrene packaging were recycled in 2018 alone. 

Benefits of PS packaging

PS has numerous unique characteristics that make it a valuable packaging material. The two types of polystyrene have different applications. HIPS is a transparent and semi-flexible plastic that is used to make fruit and vegetable containers (like grape punnets) as well as CD cases. PS-E is a foam-like polymer that is used to make vending cups, meat trays (like boerewors punnets) and cooler boxes.

PS is heat-resistant and acts as a good insulator – hence its widespread use in the food and beverage sectors. It is fairly easy to recycle and can even improve the aeration in landfills if it is not sent to a recycling facility. The furniture and domestic housewares markets are the two largest consumers of PS recyclate.

PS is non-toxic and non-reactive, so it can be used in food and beverage contact applications without affecting the consumer. These characteristics and benefits make PS a highly-valuable plastic packaging material in South Africa.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Plastic packaging type 4 – PE-LD

Plastics are highly valuable materials that make modern life possible. They keep our goods protected, our food fresh and are vital for the functioning of daily life, whether we are aware of it or not. Plastic packaging has many advantages, including affordable production and ease of recycling and reuse. Plastics need to be recycled properly in order to maximise their economic value and to minimise their environmental impact.

To understand more about plastics, we will shed some light on the different types of polymer, their benefits and their recyclability properties, including what products can be made from recycled plastic. We will go according to the material identification codes found on plastics. These are numerical symbols from one to seven that are used to identify the type of plastic.

This coding system is used around the globe by recyclers, waste management companies and plastics manufacturers. It enables them to separate and sort plastics so that they can be processed according to the main polymer present. All plastic packaging should display these material identification codes. The fourth polymer used for plastic packaging is low-density polyethylene (PE-LD or LDPE).

What is PE-LD?

PE-LD is a flexible and low-weight form of polyethylene that is used to manufacture a variety of plastic bags, wraps, toys, phone cables and storage tanks. PE-LD is the most commonly recycled polymer in South Africa due to its multiple applications for daily life. Just under 120 000 tonnes of PE-LD were processed and recycled in South African facilities during the 2018 financial year.

Its flexibility and durability make it ideal for packaging and bags that need to be lightweight but reusable. This plastic is in high demand by recyclers as it is used to manufacture bin liners, construction film, furniture covers and many types of plastic bags. The substantial growth in the recycling of PE-LD can be attributed to the fact that barriers to entry are fairly low and a well-established collection network exists. 

Benefits of PE-LD packaging

PE-LD has numerous unique characteristics that make it a valuable packaging material. It differs from normal polyethylene because it has a lower molecular weight which makes it lighter and more flexible – less dense than conventional polyethylene. All polyethylene polymers have a whitish colour and are semi-crystalline, but PE-LD is more flexible.

It is ideal for manufacturing plastics bags, sheets, films, tubes, sachets and cables. PE-LD recycling has a 100% conversion rate when processing plastic bags into new plastic bags – there is no wastage at all. The flexible packaging market is also the largest consumer of plastic recyclate – 19% of the South African market for recycled plastic is for flexible packaging. This means that PE-LD is a highly sought after material for recyclers and packaging manufacturers. 

PE-LD is non-toxic and non-reactive, so it can be used in the food and beverage industry to shrink-wrap and store produce for consumption. These characteristics and benefits make PE-LD one of the most valuable plastic packaging materials in the world and the number one most recycled polymer in South Africa.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Plastic packaging type 3 – PVC

Plastics are highly-valuable materials that make modern life possible. These materials play vital roles in all aspects of life and are very beneficial to a number of industries. Plastic packaging is vital in the food, product manufacturing, medical, agricultural and financial sectors, to name a few. However, plastics need to be recycled properly in order to maximise their economic value and to minimise their environmental impact.

To understand more about plastics, we will shed some light on the different types of polymer, their benefits and their recyclability properties, including what products can be made from recycled plastic. We will go according to the material identification codes found on plastics. These are numerical symbols from one to seven that are used to identify the type of plastic.

This coding system is used around the world by recyclers. It enables them to separate and sort plastics so that they can be processed according to the main polymer present. All plastic packaging should display these material identification codes. The third polymer used for plastics is polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

What is PVC?

PVC is one of the most popular and oldest thermoplastic polymers in the world. It was discovered twice in the 1800s; first by Henry Regnault in 1838 and again by Eugen Baumann in 1872. PVC was first sold commercially by BFGoodrich in the 1920s. Most other polymers were only discovered in the 1940s and 1950s. 

There are three forms of PVC; rigid, flexible and liquid. The rigid and flexible variants are by far the most common form, having various applications in a number of industries. Rigid PVC is most commonly used in the irrigation and construction sectors, whereas flexible PVC is widely used in the medical and clothing industries.

Rigid PVC is used to manufacture irrigation pipes, conduit, gutters, pharmaceutical bottles, and fridge magnets. Flexible PVC is used to produce drip bags, electrical insulation, vehicle dashboard skins, gumboots, safety gloves, garden hoses and packaging films. The polymer is highly durable and cost-efficient to produce, requiring minimal amounts of energy.

Benefits of PVC

PVC has numerous unique characteristics that make it a valuable packaging and plastic material. It is highly resistant to environmental degradation, including wear and tear, chemicals and alkaline substances. It is cheap to produce and requires little energy in the process, making it an economically-beneficial polymer.

PVC has a high density and good tensile strength, especially the rigid form. This makes it a popular polymer for the construction and irrigation sectors, where the plastic needs to be able to withstand impacts and hard use. Its high resistance to chemicals and heat also makes it a valuable polymer. PVC is inherently flame-resistant and impermeable to liquids. 

All PVC pipes manufactured in South Africa have been lead-free since 2006 after local manufacturers belonging to the Southern African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association (SAPPMA) voluntarily, but at great cost to the industry, accepted a policy of heavy metal-free stabilizers for the manufacture of PVC pipes based on health and environmental considerations. 

As a member of the Southern African Vinyls Association (SAVA), SAPPMA is also one of the signatories of the Association’s Product Stewardship Commitment (PSC) a voluntary programme aimed at ensuring that all heavy metal additives (primarily lead) are removed from their workplace environments

These characteristics of PVC make it a versatile and highly useful plastic material. It is easy to recycle and is readily available, making it a valuable polymer for the recycling industry. All PVC plastic should be reused, upcycled or sent to a recycling facility when no longer needed. It should never be sent to landfills or dumped in the environment. For more information, visit SAVinyls.co.za

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

PE-HD plastic packaging successes

High-density polyethylene (PE-HD) is the third most-widely recycled polymer in South Africa. This plastic is strong, scratch-resistant and non-toxic, making it ideal for use in the beverage and packaging industry. PE-HD is an abundant material and is quite easy to recycle in South Africa. It can be turned into numerous recycled products, making it a valuable polymer that can be reused again and again.

South Africa has some of the highest recycling rates in the world – 63 038 tonnes of PE-HD plastic was recycled in 2018 alone. Of this volume, most of the PE-HD plastic came in the form of milk bottles, plastic crates and plastic drums. These materials are mainly recycled into carrier bags for grocery stores and supermarket chains.

PE-HD plastic recycling is a successful industry

PE-HD recyclate is currently in high demand due to its durability. Although recycled PE-HD is not suitable for food contact applications (like the virgin polymer is), there is a great need for the recyclate in the agricultural industry. The main bulk of PE-HD recyclate is used to manufacture irrigation pipes, feeding troughs, fence poles and weather covers for the farming sector.

PE-HD can also be recycled into various flexible packaging products, including bin liners, recycled grocery bags and wood bags. The mining industry also accounts for a large portion of PE-HD recyclate, followed by the rigid packaging and construction sectors. This polymer has a variety of uses as a recycled material in various industries in South Africa.

PE-HD has a number of beneficial properties

PE-HD is an ideal packaging material because of its unique properties. It is produced from the polymerisation of ethylene at high temperatures, making it dense and robust. It is a highly crystalline polymer with strong bonds between molecules. These properties make PE-HD a dense plastic with high strength, high temperature resistance and excellent chemical resistance.

PE-HD has excellent corrosion and scratch resistance, making it ideal for products that need to withstand wear and tear or contain harsh chemicals. It is a lightweight and non-toxic plastic that lends itself to many applications in the packaging industry and a number of other sectors. These properties make PE-HD a popular plastic polymer. It is widely recycled in South Africa thanks to our strong and resilient recycling industry.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Plastic packaging type 2 – PE-HD

Plastics are valuable materials that make modern life possible, especially plastic packaging. These materials keep our goods protected and our food fresh. Plastic packaging even keeps medical equipment sterilised and safe from contamination. Plastics need to be recycled properly in order to maximise their economic value and to minimise their environmental impact.

To understand more about plastic packaging, we will shed some light on the different types of plastic, their benefits and their recyclability properties, including what products can be made from recycled plastic. We will go according to the material identification codes found on plastics. These are numerical symbols from one to seven that are used to identify the type of plastic.

This coding system is used around the world by recyclers. It enables them to separate and sort plastics so that they can be processed according to the main polymer present. All plastic packaging should display these material identification codes. The second polymer used for plastic packaging is high-density polyethylene (PE-HD or HDPE).

What is PE-HD?

PE-HD is a hard and strong form of polyethylene that is used to manufacture milk bottles, fruit juice bottles, plastic drums, buckets, crates, bins and shampoo bottles. PE-HD is widely recycled in South Africa and has some of the highest recycling rates. Its strength and durability make it ideal for products and packaging that need to withstand wear and tear.

PE-HD was the third-most recycled polymer in South Africa during the last financial year. Over 63 000 tonnes of PE-HD were processed in South African recycling facilities in 2018 alone. This plastic is in high demand by recyclers as it is used to manufacture recycled carrier bags for supermarkets and stores around the country. 

Benefits of PE-HD packaging

PE-HD has numerous unique characteristics that make it a valuable packaging material. It differs from normal polyethylene because it has a higher molecular weight which makes it heavier per volume – denser than conventional polyethylene. All polyethylene polymers have a whitish colour and are semi-crystalline, but PE-HD is more rigid and durable.

It is ideal for manufacturing thermoformed plastic moulds, just as milk bottles, buckets and helmets. PE-HD is very resistant to high temperatures; it does not melt easily. This makes it ideal for containers that carry hot liquids, such as kettles and pipelines. This polymer also has extreme cut and wear resistance, making it one of the most durable packaging plastics available.

PE-HD is highly resistant to chemicals, too. It is non-toxic and non-reactive, so it can be used in the food and beverage industry to store produce. This polymer has many uses, from packaging and agriculture to construction and homeware. These characteristics and benefits make PE-HD one of the most valuable plastic packaging materials in the world.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

PET plastic packaging successes

One of the most common plastic packaging polymers is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This plastic is highly durable and naturally colourless – making it ideal for protective food, beverage and product packaging. It is also easy to recycle and can be turned into numerous recycled products, adding to its popularity across the globe.

South Africa has some of the highest recycling rates in the world – 74 328 tonnes of PET plastic was recycled in 2018, making it the second most recycled polymer in the country. PET is so easily recycled in South Africa that we imported 5136 tonnes from foreign countries last year to boost the local recycling industry.

PET recycling is a successful industry

PET packaging is recycled into plastic fibres that are then sold to suppliers who manufacture various products. This recycled PET (rPET) is used to make plastic vehicle components, clothing, textiles and more packaging materials. Clothing and footwear account for one of the largest market segments for rPET; just under 15% of all rPET is used to manufacture polyester fibres for clothing and shoes.

The South African plastics industry has invested heavily in rPET. Post-consumer PET packaging and beverage bottles are also recycled into new plastic bottles, plastic sheeting and thermoformed punnets for food. rPET is the only recycled material that can be used in food-contact applications because it is 100% non-toxic and will not contaminate food and drinks with chemicals.

PET has a number of beneficial properties

PET is an ideal packaging material because of its unique properties. It is virtually shatterproof, which means that it forms a durable protective coating around food and products. It is also non-reactive and non-toxic, so food and products will not be contaminated by the packaging. 

PET is also very cost-effective to produce and recycle. These properties of the polymer make PET an unbeatable material for consumer product packaging and polyester clothing fibres. It is widely recycled across the globe, but even more so in South Africa thanks to our strong and resilient recycling industry.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.