A - Z of plastics materials

Most plastics materials have been produced in a large number of formulations to suit particular applications and manufacturing processes. They may be what is called a copolymer, that is made up of two or more polymers, in order to increase the range of the plastic’s performance. The complexity of the subject is only hinted at here.

Manufacturing processes listed are those most commonly used with the particular material. It is though possible to find the material manufactured by other processes.

Many plastics have long gestation periods and were ‘invented’ at slightly different times in different countries. Dates should therefore be taken as indicative rather than absolute.

If you have an object made of a plastic not featured on this site please contact us so that we can remedy the situation for those who come after you.

Acrylic see: polymethyl methacrylate

 

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

ABS

AIBDC 0_6469 AIBDC 005603 AIBDC 001193
Group:
thermoplastic
Developed:
from 1948
Trade names:
Cycolac
Manufacturing process:
Cost:
low
Colour:
any
Transparency:
almost always opaque
Rigidity:
rigid
Feel:
hard
Smell:
none
Other:
glossy
Typical uses:
domestic appliance and computer housings; Lego
Degradation:
relatively stable but has tendency to yellow

Alkathene™ see: polythene

Alketh™ see: polythene

Argosy™ see: melamine formaldehyde

Bakelite™ see: phenol formaldehyde

Bandalasta™ see: urea formaldehyde

Beatl™ see: urea formaldehyde

Beetle™ see: urea formaldehyde

Bexoid™ see: cellulose acetate

 

Bois durci

blood albumen and powdered wood

AIBDC 006799    
Group:
thermoset
Developed:
patented in Paris 1855, exhibited 1862 and 1867 International Exhibitions, London; commercial production ceased in 1875
Trade names:
Manufacturing process:
Cost:
high
Colour:
black and dark brown, but sometimes has a lacquered finish
Transparency:
always opaque
Rigidity:
always rigid
Feel:
hard
Smell:
none
Other:
can sometimes be identified by the moulding of a small bird’s wing or by the name ‘Bois Durci’
Typical uses:
desk accessories; plaques with reliefs of notable people or mythological scenes
Degradation:
relatively stable

 

Casein formaldehyde

milk curds hardened with formaldehyde

AIBDC 003361 AIBDC 0_3106.10 PHSL 34
Group: thermoset (but can also be thermoplastic to a certain extent)
Developed: patented 1899; little used since the1980s
Trade names: Lactoid, Erinoid, Galalith
Manufacturing process: extrusion; fabrication, usually machined to shape from sheet, rod or block; textures achieved by laminating sheet on sheet
Cost: medium
Colour: any, including mottles, pearls and special effects
Transparency: usually opaque but some translucency when imitating tortoiseshell, horn and all the many decorative affects that could be achieved
Rigidity: firm but can flex
Feel: hard
Smell: occasionally of the formaldehyde used in its production
Other: accepts surface dyeing; polishes to a brilliant lustre
Typical uses: buttons, knitting needles, fountain pens, jewellery, dressing table sets, manicure sets,inlay in furniture
Degradation: Surface crazes and cracks

Cast phenolic see: phenol formaldehyde

Celanese™ see: cellulose acetate

Cellophane™ see: cellulose acetate

Celluloid™ see: cellulose nitrate

 

Cellulose acetate

 
PHSL 362 AIBDC 001550 PHSL X11
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: first prepared 1865, adapted to form viscose silk 1892, but only developed as a hard material for commercial use from 1918 (although to form cellophane from 1908); not common until late 1920s. Use fell off in1970s but interest currently reviving, as made from wood based cellulose, a renewable resource.
Trade names: Celanese, Estron, Plastacele, Bexoid, Tenite, Clarifoil
Manufacturing process: early examples compression moulded; from c.1928 injection moulded
Cost: medium
Colour: any, usually plain but occasionally marbled
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: strong but slightly soft, may be flexible in thin sections
Feel: hard
Smell: vinegar (when degrading)
Other: will accept surface colouring
Typical uses: as liquid to stiffen and waterproof fabric wings and fuselage of early aircraft. In solid form in spectacle frames; type-writer keys; negatives and film; toys; fancy goods e.g. by Lalique; sculpture e.g. by Naum Gabo; hair brush handles, especially Addis Ltd; also as supports for archival material from 1940s
Degradation: shrinks, crazes, becomes ‘sugary’ and cracks. Acidic droplets; white bloom on the surface; and distortion (warping), a result of plasticiser migration

 

Cellulose nitrate

 
AIBDC 005961 PHSL 317 AIBDC 006384SA
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: displayed at 1862 International Exhibition, London; first common domestic plastic; turned into an artificial fibre like silk in 1884 called Chardonnet silk; use of all kinds almost ceases in 1940s but it is still used for ping pong balls.
Trade names: Parkesine 1862 – 68; Xylonite (British) and Celluloid (USA) from 1870s
Manufacturing process: blow-moulding; fabrication, made into blocks that are sliced into thin sheets; thermoforming of thin sheets
Cost: medium
Colour: any, including mottles, pearls and special effects such as imitations of tortoiseshell and ivory
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: wide range
Feel: hard
Smell: camphor (used as plasticiser), easiest to smell in containers with lids
Other: blade marks from the slicing into sheets sometimes visible; flammable, hence its early demise
Typical uses: collars and cuffs; dressing table sets and combs; billiard and ping pong balls; knife handles; jewellery and costume accessories; spectacles; toys; false teeth; sculpture e.g. by Naum Gabo; in mortars ; also as support for film and still photography and from 1940s archival material
Degradation: internal cuboid crazing, becomes ‘sugary’ and cracks. Decomposition of the polymer releases nitrogen oxides, generating acidic wet bloom and ultimately breakdown

Chardonet silk see: cellulose nitrate

Clarifoil™ see: cellulose acetate

Corian™ see: polymethyl methacrylate

Crimplene™ see: polyester

Cycolac™ see: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

Delrin™ see: polyacetal

Diatite™ see: shellac

Erinoid™ see: casein formaldehyde

Ebonite see: vulcanised rubber

Estron™ see: cellulose acetate

Fibreglas™ see: glass-reinforced plastic

Florence compound see: shellac

Formica™ see: melamine formaldehyde and phenol formaldehyde

Galalith™ see: casein formaldehyde

Gaydon™ see: melamine formaldehyde

 

Glass-reinforced plastic

GRP, a composite material made of glass fibres and plastic usually polyester, but polyamide and polypropylene are also used

AIBDC 001748 AIBDC 006222 AIBDC 005817
Group: thermoset
Developed: during World War 2; first used in civilian life in 1950s
Trade names: Fibreglas
Manufacturing process: compression moulding or fabrication: hand-laying in an open mould
Cost: low
Colour: any

Transparency: translucent to opaque
Rigidity: rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: none
Other:  
Typical uses: very large containers, boat hulls, car panels, sculptures e.g. by Claus Oldenburg and Philip King
Degradation: relatively stable

 

Gutta percha

hard substance exuded from tropical tree that softens in hot water

PHSL 151    
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: introduced from Far East in1843; wide range of products shown at 1851 Great Exhibition, London; use falls off in 1930s
Trade names:  
Manufacturing process: compression moulding; extrusion
Cost: low
Colour: dark, but sometimes painted
Transparency: always opaque
Rigidity: normally rigid
Feel: old material is hard; modern gutta percha is often softer; dry-ish
Smell: none
Other: can look woody
Typical uses: golf balls; dentistry; insulation for submarine telephone cables; household uses similar to those of tin; fancy mouldings
Degradation: oxidises and embrittles, as a result mouldings are now scarce

Hard rubber see: vulcanised rubber

 

Horn

 
WCHL 338C WCHL 306C WCHL 19
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: moulding technology from early 17th century
Trade names:  
Manufacturing process: compression moulding; thermoforming
Cost: medium
Colour: natural horn colour, typically dyed black; also imitations of tortoiseshell
Transparency: translucent or opaque
Rigidity: rigid but when thin flexes
Feel: sometimes textured
Smell: none
Other: fibrous texture sometimes visible
Typical uses: drinking vessels; buttons; combs; imitation jet jewellery; snuff boxes; cutlery handles; small translucent panels used e.g. in windows and lanterns
Degradation: stress cracks; some distortion and shrinkage but otherwise stable

Ivoride™ see: cellulose nitrate

Kematal™ see: polyacetal

Lacqrene™ see: polystyrene

Lactoid™ see: casein formaldehyde

LingaLonga™ see: urea formaldehyde

Lucite™ see: polymethyl methacrylate

Lycra™ see: polyurethane

Makrolon™ see: polycarbonate

 

Melamine formaldehyde

 
AIBDC 002680 PHSL 165 AIBDC 001482
Group: thermoset
Developed: commercially, post World War II; heyday late 50s and early 60s; still in use for picnic ware and ashtrays
Trade names: Argosy; Gaydon; Melaware; Melmex
Manufacturing process: compression moulding
Cost: low
Colour: any, often two-toned
Transparency: always opaque
Rigidity: always rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: none
Other: porcelain-like; capable of high gloss
Typical uses: colourful table and picnic ware; ashtrays; a component of Formica™
Degradation: relatively stable but scratches and stains

Melaware™ see: melamine formaldehyde

Melmex™ see: melamine formaldehyde

Mouldrite™ see: phenol formaldehyde

NatureWorks™ see: polylactide

Nestorite™ see: phenol formaldehyde

Nylon see: polyamide

Oroglas™ see: polymethyl methacrylate

Parkesine™ see: cellulose nitrate

Peck™ see: shellac

Perspex™ see: polymethyl methacrylate

Plantic™ see: polylactide

Plaskon™ see: urea formaldehyde

Plastacele™ see: cellulose acetate

Plexiglass™ see: polymethyl methacrylate

 

Phenol formaldehyde

with wood flour or other filler as powder or pre-formed tablets and as liquid resin. Often called cast phenolic

PHSL 144

PHSL 181

PHSL 267

(without filler)

AIBDC 006349SA AIBDC 0_2412 AIBDC 003086

(With filler)

Group: thermoset
Developed: with filler 1907: not widely used until after 1915; still used for electrical moulds and saucepan handles
as liquid resin: 1927.
Trade names: with filler: Bakelite; Mouldrite; Nestorite; Roanoid
as liquid resin: Bakelite; Catalin; Carvacraft
Manufacturing process: with filler: compression moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: with filler: usually dark in colour: black, shades of green, red and brown, often mottled sometimes in wood effects.
as liquid resin: any, but frequently amber and green, seldom blue
Transparency: with filler: always opaque
as resin: seldom transparent; often translucent and marbled; sometimes opaque
Rigidity: always rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: carbolic acid
Other: good electrical and heat resistance
Typical uses: with filler: domestic items: radio, clock and hair dryer casings, ash trays, boxes; electrical fittings; car components, aircraft and military components; cooker knobs; kettle handles;
as liquid resin: napkin rings and bangles; desk accessories; wireless cabinets, especially American; jewellery; laminate surfacing, e.g. Formica™.
Degradation: with filler: relatively stable but colour darkened by exposure to light, green becoming brown, also goes dull
as liquid resin: brittle but relatively stable; discolours

 

Polyacetal

also referred to as polyoxymethylene (POM) and polyformaldehyde

AIBDC 003980 AIBDC 003369.2 AIBDC 003977
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: 1957
Trade names: Delrin; Kematal
Manufacturing process: extrusion; injection moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: naturally white, but any
Transparency: translucent to opaque
Rigidity: always rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: none
Other: strong; recognised as the first ‘engineering’ plastic
Typical uses: gear wheels and mechanisms; disposable lighters; bathroom taps; plectra and guitar picks
Degradation: stable

 

Polyamide

PA

AIBDC 0_3106.8 PHSL 35 AIBDC 001502
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: 1933; nylon trade name given in 1938
Trade names: Nylon
Manufacturing process: extrusion; injection moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: all
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: rigid to flexible depending on type
Feel: varies; can be waxy
Smell: none
Other:  
Typical uses: toothbrush tufts, combs, kitchen utensils, zips, Velcro; as textile fibres: carpets stockings, tents; glass-reinforced moulding compounds
Degradation: discolouration, especially yellowing

 

 

Polycarbonate

PC

AIBDC03427.1 PHSL 196 AIBDC 001351
Group:
thermoplastic
Developed:
from 1958
Trade names:
Makrolon
Manufacturing process:
Cost:
medium
Colour:
Transparency:
transparent to opaque
Rigidity:
rigid
Feel:
hard
Smell:
none
Other:
can be outstandingly strong
Typical uses:
safety and space helmets; compact discs and DVDs; as copolymer as mobile phone housings; car components; large bottles; glass substitute
Degradation:
stable but can crack

 

Polyester

a category of polymer often used to describe its fibre form; a huge family of ‘plastics’ available also in an integrally foamed form; see also polyethylene terephthalate

AIBDC 005758 AIBDC 0_3106.1 AIBDC 006046
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: 1941
Trade names: Crimplene, Dacron, Terylene
Manufacturing process: as a fibre: extrusion
Cost: low
Colour: any
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: flexible
Feel: varies
Smell: none
Other: resilient, quick-drying, flammable
Typical uses: clothing and upholstery; also from 1955 in sheet form as support for archival material
Degradation: relatively stable

 

Polyethylene

PE, low and high density: LDPE and HDPE

PHSL 105.1 AIBDC 003335 AIBDC 000847

(HDPE)

AIBDC 006323SA AIBDC 006291

AIBDC 004824

(LDPE)

Group: thermoplastic
Developed: 1933 low density but used for military purposes until 1945; 1953 high density
Trade names: Polythene; Alkathene; Tyvek
Manufacturing process: blow moulding; extrusion; injection moulding; rotational moulding
Cost: very low
Colour: any
Transparency: naturally translucent but can be opaque
Rigidity: semi-rigid to flexible depending on density
Feel: varies depending on density
Smell: wax
Other: scratches with fingernail; currently LDPE is the plastic with the highest volume of use
Typical uses: replaced enamelled kitchenware: bowls and other domestic wares, first squeezable bottles (e.g. for washing up liquid) and airtight food containers; road cones; ‘poppit’ beads; packaging film, e.g. carrier bags
Degradation: yellows, stiffens, and embrittles

 

 

Polyethylene terephthalate

PET, a polyester

AIBDC 006493 AIBDC 005993 AIBDC 005633
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: 1941 announced as a commercial polymer; widely used in blow-moulded form from1980s
Trade names: related film Melinex and Mylar
Manufacturing process: especially blow moulding; injection moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: any
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: rigid
Feel: varies
Smell: none
Other: strong
Typical uses: carbonated drinks bottles; video and audio tape
Degradation: relatively stable

Polyformaldehyde see: polyacetal

 

Polylactide

PLA, made from corn starch

AIBDC 005703 AIBDC 005690 AIBDC 005680.1
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: since 2000
Trade names: NatureWorks; Plantic
Manufacturing process: all
Cost: medium
Colour: any
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: rigid to flexible
Feel: varies
Smell: none
Other: made from renewable resources
Typical uses: disposable plates and cutlery, trays in confectionary industry, but suitable for anything from toys to car parts
Degradation: intended to biodegrade; crucial to keep it dry

 

Polymethyl methacrylate

PMMA, often called acrylic

AIBDC 004096 AIBDC 005927 AIBDC 001000
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: 1932, in commercial use from 1934, fashionable in 1960s
Trade names: Oroglas, Perspex, Plexiglass, Lucite; Corian
Manufacturing process: initially thermoforming from cast sheet and fabrication; now also casting; extrusion; injection moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: any
Transparency: transparent to opaque; better optical properties than glass
Rigidity: rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: none
Other: takes a high gloss; dull sound when struck
Typical uses: aircraft glazing; containers fabricated from sheet, e.g. handbags; blocks with embedded objects, jewellery, display stands, artists ’paints
Degradation: relatively stable; crazing resulting from stress; physical damage, especially scratches

Polyoxymethylene see: polyacetal

 

Polypropylene

PP

AIBDC 003432 AIBDC 006021 AIBDC 000822
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: from 1954; increase in use from 1976 when initial patents ran out; became fashionable in translucent sheet form in 1990s; now one of the most used plastics
Trade names: Propathene
Manufacturing process: blow moulding; extrusion (as a fibre); injection moulding
Cost: low
Colour: any
Transparency: translucent, but can have clarifying agents added making it transparent; also comes as clear film (modern cellophane)
Rigidity: rigid but flexible
Feel: varies
Smell: none
Other: can be moulded to create an integral hinge; can achieve reasonably glossy surface scratches with fingernail
Typical uses: chair shells and garden furniture; luggage; car bumper; petrol cans; food wrappings; microwaveable meal trays; margarine tubs; netting; household goods; carpets; packaging; rope
Degradation: relatively stable

 

Polystyrene

PS

AIBDC 005588 PHSL 385 AIBDC 006399SA
Group: thermoplastic
Developed: became a usable material in 1930s but not used commercially until after World War II
Trade names: Lacqrene; Polystyrol; Styron
Manufacturing process: usually injection moulding; also extrusion; fabrication: especially cutting and sticking; foaming; thermoforming
Cost: very low
Colour: any, including streak and pearlised effects
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: hard, except when foamed
Feel: always rigid
Smell: none
Other: can be brittle but can be toughened, e.g. high impact polystyrene (HIPS); metallic ring when tapped; good for bonding
Typical uses: disposable pens and razors; cutlery and vending cups; CD cases; yogurt pots; model kits; insulation and packaging food trays, hamburger and egg boxes, electronic equipment, when foamed
Degradation: crazing and discolours

Polystyrol see: polystyrene

 

 

Polyurethane

PU

AIBDC 006391SA AIBDC 006530 AIBDC 006410
Group: thermoset as foams; thermoplastic as fibres and surface coatings
Developed: from 1937; still widely used
Trade names: in adapted form: Lycra; Spandex
Manufacturing process: all
Cost: medium
Colour: any
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: any
Feel: varies
Smell: none
Other: surface scratches with fingernail
Typical uses: furniture; paint; shoe soles; synthetic leather-like fabrics; bicycle seats; as foams, seating, large mouldings
Degradation: discolouration followed by crumbling, the result of oxidation; foams deteriorate faster due to their greater surface area

 

Polyvinyl chloride

PVC

PHSL X7 AIBDC 005949 AIBDC 005947

(plasticised)

AIBDC 006130 AIBDC 006131 AIBDC 006132

(unplasticised)

Group: thermoplastic
Developed: known from 1870 but suitable plasticisers not discovered until 1933; wide use from 1940s, ongoing
Trade names:  
Manufacturing process: all thermoplastic processes
Cost: low
Colour: any
Transparency: transparent to opaque
Rigidity: basically rigid but made soft with the use of plasticisers
Feel: varies, can be sticky
Smell: none
Other: in flexible form scratches and indents with fingernail
Typical uses: shiny leather-like fabric; fashion belts; flexible toys; inflatable furniture; cables e.g. computers and other electrical items; credit cards; blood bags; flooring; in unplasticised form: guttering, window frames, flooring; as co-polymer LP gramophone records from 1952
Degradation: yellowing and darkening; migration of additives to the surface creating either a bloom or sticky surface, which may lead to embrittlement.

Propathene™ see polypropylene

Rayon see cellulose acetate

Roanoid™ see phenol formaldehyde

Rubber see vulcanite

Scarab™ see urea formaldehyde

 

Shellac

excretion of tropical beetle mixed with fillers such as cotton flock, powdered slate, wood flour

PHSL 24.3 PHSL 169 PHSL 24.1
Group: thermoplastic or set depending on heat used in manufacture
Developed: known for thousand of years; used to make products from 1860s to 1940s
Trade names: Diatite; Florence compound; Peck
Manufacturing process: compression moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: dark brown, blackand occasionally paler dull shades
Transparency: always opaque
Rigidity: rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: sealing wax
Other: brittle; capable of reproducing very fine detail
Typical uses: cases for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes (early forms ofphotographs on glass); dressing table sets; 78 rpm records until 1948; as stiffening for bowler and riding hats; also used as lacquer
Degradation: relatively stable

 Silastic™ see silicone

 

Silicone

derived from sand

AIBDC 004805 PHSL 50

AIBDC 005991

Group: usually thermosets
Developed: discovered in 1934; used commercially from 1942
Trade names: Silastic
Manufacturing process: injection moulding
Cost: high
Colour: any
Transparency: translucent to opaque
Rigidity: flexible
Feel: soft and bouncy
Smell: none
Other: water-repellent; can be subjected to high heat without damage; bouncy; feels sensuous; softer than fingernail
Typical uses: baking and ice trays; oven gloves; breast implants; baby teats; silly putty; micro-chips
Degradation: relatively stable

Spandex™ see: polyurethane

Styron™ see: polystyrene

Tenite™ see: cellulose acetate

Terylene™ see: polyester

Tyvek™ see: polythene

 

Urea formaldehyde

 
PHSL 341 AIBDC 006315SA PHSL 271
Group: thermoset
Developed: patents taken out 1915 but only becomes practical for commercial use as thiourea urea formaldehyde in 1925; improved to urea formaldehyde in 1929; role taken by other plastics by 1950s
Trade names: Beetle; Beatl; Bandalasta; LingaLonga; Plaskon; Scarab
Manufacturing process: compression moulding
Cost: medium
Colour: naturally white but any slightly muted or pastel colour; also speckled and marbled effects
Transparency: opaque or translucent; never transparent
Rigidity: rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: usually none but occasionally a faint smell of urine
Other: brittle; less than a high gloss
Typical uses: domestic wares, picnic sets; jewellery; electric fittings and casings
Degradation: dulls, discolours, cracks; acquires an orange peel effect on the surface; badly affected by hot water; otherwise reasonably stable

Viscose see: cellulose acetate

 

Vulcanised rubber

also known as ebonite and in USA as hard rubber. It is made from chemically altered natural rubber. The process involves heat and sulphur

AIBDC 005726 PHSL 223 PHSL 75
Group: thermoset
Developed: reaction when heated with a large percentage of sulphur to make it rigid discovered in 1839; still in use in 1930s
Trade names: Vulcanite; Ebonite
Manufacturing process: compression moulding; fabrication, including turning
Cost: medium
Colour: typically black (fades to brown) but can also be red
Transparency: always opaque
Rigidity: rigid
Feel: hard
Smell: sulphurous rubbery
Other:  
Typical uses: match boxes; combs; fountain pens; imitation jet jewellery; denture palates (with pigmentation to resemble gums); pipe stems
Degradation: often faded to a greyish greenish brown shade

 

Vulcanite see: vulcanised rubber

Xylonite™ see: cellulose nitrate

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