Top 10 FAQs

Read the top 10 questions about plastic and its uses and get answers from Professor Plastics.

What are plastics?

Plastics are simply chains of like molecules linked together. These chains are called polymers. This is why many plastics begin with “poly,” such as polyethylene, polystyrene, and polypropylene. Polymers often are made of carbon and hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous, or silicon.

The term “plastics” encompasses all these various polymers.

Although there are many polymers, plastics in general are lightweight with significant degrees of strength. Plastics can be molded, extruded, cast and blown into seemingly limitless shapes and films or foams or even drawn into fibers for textiles. Many types of coatings, sealants and glues are actually plastics, too. Learn more.

How is plastic made?

To make today’s plastics, chemists start with various elements (atoms such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on) derived from natural resources.

Chemists combine various atoms to make molecules, which are simply two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds. When making plastics, these molecules generally are called monomers. These monomers then are combined by chemical bonds into a chain or a network—this is called polymerization. And the resulting materials are called polymers. Or plastics. Learn more.

How many types of plastic are there?

I have no exact number. It’s sort of like asking how many types of bread there are. Plastics aren’t simply one material made the same way every time. Although plastics can be broken down into broad types or categories, there actually are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. Learn more.

What are bioplastics?

The “bio” in bioplastics actually has to do with that oft-dreaded high school class, biology. Bioplastics are reemerging today as scientists develop more efficient ways to produce the necessary quantities of biomass, most often sugarcane, wheat and corn. Learn more.

Is plastic biodegradable?

Biodegradability of plastics depends largely on the type of plastic and where it ends up. Many plastics do not biodegrade to any significant degree, regardless of environmental conditions, while some do so very slowly if exposed to air, water and light. Both types are best recycled or used for their stored energy. Learn more.

 What things are made from recycled plastics?

While used plastic is sometimes recycled into new packaging, that’s not always the case. Used plastic can also be recycled into playground equipment, patio furniture, cooking tools and even clothing. Non-recycled plastic can also be converted into energy. See more examples.

What types of plastic can I recycle?

More than 90 percent of U.S. households have access to a plastic recycling program. The vast majority of these plastic recycling programs collect plastic bottles, defined as a container with a neck or opening that’s smaller than its base. This includes plastic bottles/jars/jugs for food and beverages, such as milk, soft drinks, water, salad dressing, cooking oil, condiments, peanut butter and mayonnaise, as well as for toiletries, laundry detergent, household cleaners and more. Put plastic caps back on bottles and containers since now recyclers want those, too.

A growing number of plastic recycling programs also accept rigid containers that don’t fit the “bottle “ description—again, make sure to find out what type of plastic containers are acceptable. Learn more.

What does the number in the triangle on plastic containers mean?

That little symbol on a plastic product identifies the type of plastic (resin) used to make that item. Recyclers sometimes use this information to sort plastics for recycling. See what each number means.

How is plastic used in fashion and fabric?

Plastic fabrics help put the stretch in skinny jeans and socks, give dress clothes their shimmer, keep outerwear lightweight and water-resistant and enable accessories to be molded into all sorts of funky shapes.

From nylon, polyester and spandex to faux fur, rayon and even recycled plastics, the fashion world has embraced these plastic fabrics and taken design to heights. Learn more about types of plastic fabric.

What are some recent plastic innovations?

From more fuel-efficient cars to minimalist packaging to energy saving building products, innovations in plastics have helped us do more in our lives with less impact on the environment. By enabling advances in global sustainability, modern plastics profoundly improved our ability to create a better life while caring for the future. Browse recent plastic innovations.