What Protects Us (Hint: Plastics)


Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Despite scary headlines, our lives get a little bit safer every day.

Among the many reasons: we increasingly rely on people and products dedicated to keeping us safe… dedicated to reducing the risks inherent in our everyday lives. Advances developed over the last several decades allow us to undertake activities that would have seemed too risky just a century or so ago.

What do the vast majority of these advances in safety, especially fairly recent advances, have in common? What exactly do we rely on today to help keep us safe, to reduce our everyday risks?

How do plastics protect us every day?

More and more, we’re relying on new and rapidly evolving hi-tech materials: plastics. Materials that we created over the past century… and mostly just over the past few decades.

That’s probably surprising to most people who typically don’t think about how we rely on plastics from the moment we wake (alarms clock) to the moment we prep for sleep (toothbrush). We do, in fact, rely continuously on countless products to help keep us safe: our cars, our homes, our food packaging/supply, our sports equipment. Many of us rely on safety gear every day to help protect us at work. We rely nonstop on people to help keep us safe: our soldiers, our medical professionals, our police officers, our firefighters. And we marvel at those who push the boundaries of safety for our shared dreams, such as astronauts.

Why do plastics play such an outsized role in today’s safety products and gear? Performance. Plastics allow us to create lightweight, cushioning, energy absorbing, puncture resistant protective gear, which translates into the performance that we (often unknowingly) have come to expect and now take for granted.

Let’s take a look…

Our cars

Plastic car components, which typically make up more than half of the volume of today’s cars, can absorb more crash energy than metal components. A lot more. So the car takes the punishment instead of the occupants. In addition, seat belts (industrial strength polyethylene) and air bags (tough nylon and polyester fabrics) have saved countless lives–can we even imagine making cars without them? Add lightweight plastic front and rear crumple zones… plastic foams that add strength to hollow structures during a rollover… the growing use of lightweight yet strong carbon fiber-reinforced plastic car parts, and more.

These and other innovative safety advances helped save more than 600,000 lives between 1960 and 2012, according to the National Highway Transportation Board, and driver deaths from 2002 to 2011 dropped to 28 per million from more than 87, says the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

Our homes

There’s a good argument to be made that multiple plastic building products such as hi-tech foam insulation “protect” us from heat and cold. But we’re talking about protecting life and limb—and plastic safety gear has created a new layer of protection in the home, particularly for those with little tykes. Here’s a short list of protective gear that relies partially or completely on plastics:

  • Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors designed to alert us to unseen dangers.
  • Child safety locks for doors, drawers, and cupboards to prevent curious little ones from exploring things they should not.
  • GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupters) near water sources that trip when an electric circuit is overloaded… and plastic outlet plugs to prevent toddlers from investigating those intriguing little holes in the wall.
  • Often overlooked: plastic sheathing on electrical cords and wires throughout the house, which lets us avoid contact with their dangerous currents.
  • Furniture made with synthetic/plastic fibers (nylon, polyester, etc.) that contain fire retardants designed to provide the vital extra time to escape smoke inhalation and flames. Same goes for mattresses…

And how many lives have been saved by child protective caps—made possible by plastics?

Our food

From farm to fork, our food is susceptible to myriad contaminants. As one packaging organization declares: “Packaging helps prevent food spoilage (and) ensure food quality and safety along the supply chain and at home…”

Today’s packaging plastic packaging provides barriers to oxygen, light, temperatures, moistures, microbes, dirt… and critters. Modern plastic packaging captures reduced-oxygen air mixtures, controls the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and incorporates antimicrobials… all helping keep food safer and fresher. Factory sealed plastic containers and bags help preserve the flavor, texture, and nutrients of food by locking out air and preventing the absorption of nasty odors. A walk down the refrigerated produce aisle at many grocery stores demonstrates the growing contribution of plastic packaging in providing fresh, nutritious, safer food for our families.

Our sports

As American football demonstrates, nothing can keep us 100 percent safe from injury. But today’s sports equipment has improved safety in remarkable ways. An obvious example: Helmets for biking, skiing/snowboarding, x-sports, hockey, and other sports are made with an outer shell from tough plastics and a cushioning interior layer (typically polystyrene or polypropylene foam). Another: Today’s goggles and helmet shields typically are made from shatter-resistant polycarbonate (thankfully not glass). Other protective sports gear: mouth guards, neck guards, gloves, elbow pads, shoulder pads, athletic protectors/cups, padded shorts, shin guards…

And water sports and boating are made considerably safer by modern personal flotation devices (OK, life jackets) that today feature contoured plastic foam panels and easy to use plastic zippers, straps, and buckles for better fit/comfort. There even are life jackets for dogs…

Pick the sport, and plastics safety gear likely plays a huge role. Can we imagine sending our kids out to compete without it?

Our jobs

Preventing injuries on the job is itself a tough job. Made a bit easier by today’s protective gear.

From miners to construction workers to electricians, our workforce today relies on helmets made with tough, lightweight, non-conductive plastics, plus cushioning foams that absorb impact, to protect against falling debris and electrical currents. Factory workers using heavy machinery rely on high-performance plastic fabric gloves to reduce risks such as punctures, burns, cuts, and abrasions.

Like sports goggles, today’s safety goggles are predominately made with polycarbonate, the plastic also used to make bulletproof ¹ glass. And new plastic composites have become a material of choice for work boots: tough, strong, lightweight, helping keep workers’ feet and toes safer and more comfortable.

Our protectors

There are those whose job is to run into a fire. Or to protect us from crime and other harm. Or to stop the spread of disease. Every day. They rely on modern, hi-tech gear, much of it made possible by plastics.

  • Today’s firefighters’ turnout gear (personal protective equipment including jacket, pants, and boots) is made with flame resistant plastic fibers/fabrics that stand up to extreme temperatures while providing insulation from corrosives, extensive heat, and water.
  • Bulletproof vests worn by those who protect us (SWAT, police, military, etc.) are made with high-performing plastics that are lightweight and comfortable—and tough enough to resist a bullet or shrapnel by acting as a net like device and deforming the projectile.
  • When an outbreak of a deadly virus occurs, health professionals rely on protective plastic suits to help keep them safe, often consisting of a plastic mask, goggles, hood, coverall, apron, gloves, and boots… plus plastic tape to seal the suit.

Our astronauts

Ever wonder what those space suits are made of? They need to be flexible and strong. And shield against radiation. And swings in temperature of 500+ degrees. That’s the ultimate in “performance.” Of course, they’re made of layers of plastics that are tough enough to stand up to the extreme conditions in space.

And these same plastics are used down here on Earth by the people and products dedicated to keeping us safe.

And more…

The list goes on in multiple areas of our lives: bulletproof glass, medical equipment, new jet planes, motorcycle vests/jeans, “avalanche” air bags for skiers… even everyday sunglasses.

Every day we rely on people and products to help keep us safe… and every day, those people and products commonly rely on plastics.


¹ While people commonly say “bullet-proof”, “bullet-resistant” is more accurate since materials cannot provide complete protection against all types of bullets or multiple hits in the same location.