The ubiquitous nature of plastics means that they are often taken for granted. Very different plastics are lumped together in the one generic term with their special properties and capabilities often being overlooked by the consumer.
Plastics are synthetic or semi-synthetic polymers. A polymer is a large molecule made up of a number of smaller units (monomers) and joined together to create a long chain. They can be broadly divided into two groups, thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics are those which, once formed, can be heated and reformed. This means that they are easily processed and recycled. Thermosets cannot be reformed or remoulded so the recycling process poses different challenges.
Plastics truly are polymorphic. They are an extensive family of materials which take many forms, and for many decades have been the group of materials that are most widely used globally. They have a broad range of properties and many typical characteristics which set them apart from each other and make them particularly suitable for an inexhaustible list of applications. They range from semi-synthetic plastics, first developed over 150 years ago, to the fully synthesised techno-polymers designed and engineered for very specific uses today. With the growing realisation that fossil fuel resources are not sustainable, there is a renewed interest in the development of bio plastics derived from an increasing variety of sustainable biomass resources.
This exhibition looks at some of the plastics we commonly encounter in our everyday lives. It examines their history and development, explains what sets them apart from each other and shows the more typical applications, some of which have become icons of design, made possible only because of the type of plastic used.